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Australian blubber jelly invades harbor

"We seem to have exported a game-changing pest.”

Phyllorhiza punctata, Australian spotted jellyfish
  • Phyllorhiza punctata, Australian spotted jellyfish
  • Wikipedia/Matthias M.

While taking a maritime tour of the San Diego Harbor the afternoon of August 16, Neisa McMillin and her tour guide William Moss (aka “Captain Bill”) spotted a dozen brown jellyfish covered in white spots.

“These guys were swimming around everywhere in San Diego Harbor,” said McMillin. “I've never seen a jellyfish quite like this in San Diego. They were hanging around the maritime museum boats, Star of India, and the Russian submarine.”

McMillin’s jellyfish photo

McMillin’s jellyfish photo

I sent McMillin’s jellyfish photo to Birch Aquarium at Scripps and SeaWorld to get their opinions. After seeing McMillin’s photo, Birch Aquarium co-curator Leslee Matsushige, who has years of experience with “jellies,” identified it as a Phyllorhiza punctata, or an Australian spotted jellyfish. “They are usually seen in San Diego Bay and Mission Bay during this time of year,” said Matsushige. “Not uncommon and they are an invasive species.

Kelly Terry from SeaWorld, confirming it was an Australian white-spotted jelly, said, “Because we’re having such elevated water temperatures out there, sometimes species show up that normally hang out in warmer waters. But because our waters are so warm along the coast, it’s hospitable to them. It’s not necessarily a huge deal, but it can be whenever there’s a species that comes into an ecosystem where it normally isn’t found. It can throw off the ecosystem and sort of take over and maybe prey on other jellies and things like that.”

Terry directed me to a photo of a similar sighting in Mission Bay in September 2015 on a website that focuses on jellyfish sightings around the world.

Mike Price, assistant curator of fishes at SeaWorld, said that jellyfish are technically not fish and it’s more accurate to refer to them as "jellies." He said there are 4300 species of jellies under an umbrella of eight different families. The Aussie that McMillin saw belongs to the blubber jelly family and was discovered in Western Australia in 1884.

“Over the last year and a half [this] jelly has been spotted in both San Diego and Mission Bay along with bays up and down the Southern California Bight [curved coastline from Point Conception to San Diego]. [The] first documented sighting in Southern California was 1981, but in the last 16–18 months we have seen an increase in the numbers observed in San Diego and Mission bays.”

Price said that the bell of this jelly can grow to 20 inches in diameter. He said there is data that indicates jellies could live forever if they had no predators. For humans, their sting tends to be mild.

I also contacted a jelly expert in Australia. Originally from the U.S., Dr. Lisa-Ann Gerswhin has been enamored with jellies for decades. In June, her second book on jellies was published.

Gershwin, via email, said, “Oh fantastic find! That looks an awful lot like the Australian Phyllorhiza punctata. In fact, I would be utterly astonished if that were not Phyllorhiza. One-hundred percent confirmation would have to be based on examination of the specimen in this case, but I can tell you from the photo that I'm about 95 percent confident.”

“Phyllorhiza has been reported from San Diego a couple of times in the past, but usually unconfirmed reports not accompanied by photos or specimens. And curiously, the California one is more often blue, which is quite unlike the Australian one, which is brown, which makes me a bit doubtful. This one looks just like the Australian one!”

Gershwin said these Aussie jellies are a threat to the areas they invade. They have been known to crash fisheries by eating the eggs and larvae of fish and their plankton food.

“Usually Australia is only known for exporting great actors and singers, UGG boots, and the occasional over-zealous croc wrestler, but in this case we seem to have exported a game-changing pest.”

Gerswhin has contacted Matsushige, a colleague with whom she has worked closely for decades, to collaborate via Skype to confirm the identity of the jelly that McMillin saw. “I believe that it would be in the best interest of the local region and marine-related industries to know for sure what species it is,” said Gerswhin, “because it helps to know thine enemy!”

Gerswhin asked for permission to use McMillin’s photo in a new safety and identification app ("the Jellyfish App") she’ll be launching before the end of the year. “It will be geared toward hazardous jellies in the medical sense [stinging] and hazardous jellies in the ecological sense [bloom alerts — when millions of jellies swarm together].”

McMillin looks forward to seeing her jellyfish photo in Gerswhin’s app.

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