Beautiful clouds of undulating ooze, these jelly fish were the obvious stars of my recent trip to the National Aquarium. With hours to kill after finding myself in downtown Baltimore, visiting the museum seemed an ideal way to pass the time.
Stuck way off in a corner of the sprawling facility was a small but gorgeously menacing exhibition, which had as its focus the rapid population spikes of jellies in many U.S. waterways. While it was easy to admire their silent grace in the water and the incredible variety of shapes they formed while swimming, it was equally easy to imagine their tentacles creepily drifting my way in the surf. Below are the Lion’s Mane jellies, which deliver a nasty sting.
As the museum made clear, an over-abundance of jelly fish is not a good sign for the health of the oceans and waterways. Some are carried by ships into faraway waters, where they spread from a lack of predators in their new ecosystem, while others merely multiply in place from weakened environmental conditions.
The exhibition spelled out the causes in no uncertain terms: the warming seas from climate change, the death of natural predators like sea turtles from habitat loss and strangulation-by-plastic-bag-imitating-a-jelly (ugh), and the loss of oxygen in the water from pollution that allows jellies to move in by the cloudful.
In fact, the whole museum was, in one way or another, a sign that we could usefully re-examine the ethics of fish consumption. Set in between the tanks of cruising nurse sharks was a light-board that brightly illuminated the dire situation created by over-fishing and the lack of effective inter-governmental agreements in much of our global waters. Whether talking about the population crashes in ocean species expected by 2050, or showing breathtaking images of colorful snakes and fish from one of the only three healthy reefs in all of Indonesia, the underlying message about ongoing ocean degradation was inescapable.
Combined with pollution and the inter-dependency of life-systems that ripple changes up the food chain with brutal efficiency, it is hard to believe that the kinds of delicate arrangements that support a robust chain of ocean life will still be around for Maya and her children to enjoy, either as mere spectacle or food.
I still remember reading a chilling account years ago about what the take-over of invasive exotics would look like in a prescient Harper’s article, Planet of Weeds, detailing how kudzu and snakefish would decimate native systems. An ocean full of little else but jellies belongs in such an inverted Garden of Excess. After all, they go back 600 million years and are extremely well designed to persist.
And then, as a devastating benchmark for loss, there was this TED talk by a marine biologist who makes an incredible claim that is all too credible: coral reefs have been depleted by humans so profoundly over the last few hundred years that our view of what a healthy reef looks like is actually based on an already-degraded ecosystem.
We can do better in terms of creating marine systems that nurture both the fish we like to eat and life more generally, as another TED talk by chef Dan Barber (one of my favorites) shows, and I’ll post in the future about the debates over eating fish, which is a knotty problem from both a nutritional and environmental sustainability perspective.
But today, there were the jellies, and the slow dance of our doom. On the larger questions, I came away from the encounter with an eerie feeling that the political and social obstacles to saving our oceans from rapid destruction — particularly given the “natural” inclinations of exotics like these stunning jelly invaders to exploit any niches we open to their long arms — are steep indeed.
It’s a system after all, and a highly complex, responsive one that utterly disrespects the prosaic boundaries of our political arrangements. It will be merciless about our many, predictable mistakes, like failing to thoroughly clean the hull of a ship.
When I looked at all the jellies, with their mindless movements that somehow flow in the direction of our follies, I felt a little chill. And when I put my fingers to the glass to take a picture, it was cold, just like the ocean deep.