A Research Post: Let’s Talk Jellyfish.
First things first, jellyfish are part of a species grouping called Gelatinous Zooplankton. Closely related to coral and sea anemones, this grouping also includes other fragile water creatures like salps and comb jellies (the rave jelly). None of these creatures have brains but they do have a nervous system and some can actively catch prey.
There are around 2,000 species of jellyfish and many live in coastal regions, feeding on plankton, small fish or other jellyfishes. Some can cause a lot of damage with their stinging tentacles such as the Sea Nettle or the Lion’s Mane. At least 25 types are edible.
Jellyfish have been swept up in the strong current of future forecasting. Because they are in fact relatively understudied on a global level according to a 2012 paper, both regional reports of unusually large blooms and localised scientific papers on human activity / jellyfish bloom correlation have inspired claims that the future sea will be a mass of jelly, a fact that perhaps needs more refining. Certain incidences in the past ten years have added to jellyfish public interest including the invasion of Japan’s coastline by giant Nomura’s jellyfish in 2009 and the clogging of the cooling systems of a Swedish nuclear reactor in 2013 and an Isreali electrical power plant in 2015.
While perhaps not as large a threat as Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s 2013 book Stung! makes them out to be, it is true that jellyfish are abundant in our waters and will continue to be so, pest or not.
Are they good enough to eat?
The Chinese, Koreans, Indonesians and Japanese seem to think so.
95% water, 5% collogen protein, 4 oz of jellyfish contains 30 calories. In jellyfish-eating cultures, they are prized most for their textures, used in sesame, soy and sugar salads or as substitutes for noodles. Preserved jellyfish has long had a place in the Chinese banquet and demand is steadily rising in Japan, helped by the release of a jellyfish cooking pamphlet by the fisheries ministry during the Nomura’s jellyfish bloom in 2009. This pamphlet included recipes for jellyfish soaked in rum, jellyfish cookies and a jellyfish-coconut dessert. Japanese school girls used the bloom as inspiration for their jellyfish caramels and a Japanese ice-cream company developed a ‘bits of milk-soaked jelly’ ice-cream flavour around the same time.
Can a taste for jellyfish be created in Europe and other non-jelly eating regions?
A few high-end European chefs are extolling the joys of jellyfish cuisine. Ms. Carme Ruscalleda of Sant Pau Restaurant located at Sant Pol de Mer along the Spanish Catalan coast includes “jellyfish, rice noodles, bacon, peanuts, curry and tumeric” in her Winter 2015 tasting menu and in 2010, Mr. Heston Blumenthal created a Fish Feast with the ocean’s “alternative larder” for English Channel 4.
However, jellyfish are currently not classified as a foodstuff by the European Commission. Ruscalleda imports from Asia. So while the Commission has recently enforced a ban against the disgarding of bycatch, any jellyfish brought to shore from the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas or the Atlantic Ocean cannot be consumed. Yet.
Apart from tingling our taste buds, a phosphorescent jellyfish protein has been lighting up the lab. Charlie Harry Francis, self-proclaimed food inventor, collaborated with UK scientists to make the world’s first glow in the dark ice-cream.
The same protein was used by the French National Institute of Agricultural Research for a different purpose. A sheep by the name of Rubis was genetically engineered to contain the flourescent green protein to help the monitoring of altered gene activity. Unfortunately, the French public were exposed to the prospect of eating jellyfish a lot sooner then expected when it was announced that the jellyfish-sheep had accidentally been sent to the abattoir.
Finally, an Isreali start-up hopes to make it big by using the absorbent properties of jellyfish to make alternative diapers, sanitary pads and tampons.
Whatever the forecast for the future, jellyfish appear to be our co-habitants for the longterm. We may as well start getting to know them, including their habits, dangers, uses and taste.