Is­rael’s Most Vex­ing No­mad:

The Jel­ly­fish

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Sam Bromer

One Iraeli start up is at­tempt­ing to use jel­ly­fish car­casses as ban­dages, tam­pons and di­a­pers.

se­cu­rity is no easy feat. But en­gi­neers are now hav­ing to put up with a new threat to the na­tion’s power grid: the no­mad jel­ly­fish.

The blue-tinted Rhopilema no­mad­ica looks sort of like the lovechild of a mush­room and a very large plas­tic bag. The species made its first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1970s. Af­ter the Aswan Dam plugged the fresh­wa­ter flood of the Nile river, which had acted as a bar­rier to salt­wa­ter species, the In­dian Ocean na­tives hitched a ride through the Suez Canal and found a new home in the Eastern Mediter­ranean. When they ar­rived, they dis­placed the frilly-mouthed jel­ly­fish.

Each sum­mer, the crea­tures “bloom” off the coast of Is­rael in the thou­sands, fright­en­ing and some­times sting­ing Is­raeli bathers. But they rep­re­sent more than an icky nui­sance for the Is­raeli Elec­tric Cor­po­ra­tion, which op­er­ates Ruten­berg Power Sta­tion, sit­u­ated south of Tel Aviv, in Ashkelon.

The coal-pow­ered plant har­nesses mil­lions of gal­lons of sea­wa­ter per hour to cool its mas­sive tur­bines. Even with grates to block its for­mi­da­ble wa­ter in­takes, Ruten­berg can barely han­dle a jel­ly­fish bloom. Thou­sands of the slimy an­i­mals cre­ate a swarm, clog­ging the sys­tem so badly that work­ers must re­move them from the fil­tra­tion sys­tem by the ton — one truck­load at a time. Be­yond the ex­tra la­bor they ne­ces­si­tate, these jel­ly­fish of­ten come close to stalling op­er­a­tions at a time when Is­raelis most need their air con­di­tion­ing.

Ad­dress­ing the dan­gers cre­ated by jel­ly­fish is no joke. No­mads and other species of jel­ly­fish have cre­ated mas­sive prob­lems for the hu­mans, who rely on wa­ter and marine life for power, sus­te­nance and rev­enue: The jel­ly­fish clog wa­ter in­take screens at de­sali­na­tion plants; they re­duce vis­its to Is­raeli beaches by as much as 10%, ac­cord­ing to a study by the noted Is­raeli marine bi­ol­o­gist Bella Galil; they threaten to dec­i­mate the pop­u­la­tions of fish farms, as in Scot­land, where a quar­ter-mil­lion salmon were wiped out by “mauve stinger” jel­ly­fish.

Frus­trated by the plague of jel­ly­fish, some Is­raeli sci­en­tists have at­tempted to pre­dict why the no­mad blooms in cer­tain con­di­tions. They have tried to find cor­re­la­tions be­tween jel­ly­fish blooms and the lo­ca­tion of the moon, the tem­per­a­ture of the wa­ter or the wind’s speed.

I spoke re­cently to Juli Ber­wald about the causes and con­se­quences of jel­ly­fish blooms in the Mediter­ranean. She’s a marine bi­ol­o­gist whose book “Spine­less” came out in Novem­ber 2017. Ber­wald wrote “Spine­less” af­ter spend­ing years try­ing to fig­ure out how “over­fish­ing, coastal de­vel­op­ment, and cli­mate change were con­tribut­ing to a jel­ly­fish pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion.”

Why has this plague de­scended upon Is­rael’s shores? Ac­cord­ing to Ber­wald, much of the dam­age caused by the no­mad jel­ly­fish — along with the 400-plus other species that have en­tered the Mediter­ranean through the Suez — is a re­sult of the com­plete lack of eco­log­i­cal pre­cau­tions taken in build­ing both the canal and its re­cent ex­pan­sion, which was com­pleted in July 2015.

Species from trop­i­cal cli­mates are “of­ten more op­por­tunis­tic, or have a wider range of con­di­tions in which they can sur­vive” than their non­trop­i­cal coun­ter­parts, she said, Pre­dictably, then, when these species en­tered the Mediter­ranean via the Suez, they rad­i­cally al­tered the ecosys­tem, cre­at­ing new prob­lems for hu­mans and marine crea­tures alike. When the canal was ex­panded to dou­ble its ca­pac­ity, they sim­ply en­tered more rapidly. It is “im­pos­si­ble to say,” she said, how this ex­pan­sion will im­pact the ecosys­tems of the Mediter­ranean.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, Ber­wald said, de­spite four sep­a­rate in­ter­na­tional treaties stip­u­lat­ing that an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment was nec­es­sary be­fore con­struc­tion of the canal, no as­sess­ment was ever un­der­taken.

The Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment has re­fused to ac­knowl­edge that its ex­pan­sion of the Suez is hav­ing, or will have, an ad­verse ef­fect on Mediter­ranean ecosys­tems. Yet, the Egyp­tian coast­line is not im­mune to the no­mad’s bloom. When a mas­sive bloom took place on its north­ern shores, an­ger­ing va­ca­tion­ers and ac­tivists, the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment de­nied the oc­cur­rences be­fore re­leas­ing a bland re­sponse cit­ing “pol­lu­tion, high tem­per­a­ture and hunt­ing of sea tur­tles” as fac­tors caus­ing the no­mad’s most re­cent bloom. No ac­knowl­edg­ment was made of the ef­fect of the canal’s ex­pan­sion on the no­mad’s in­creas­ing promi­nence in the Mediter­ranean.

Mean­while, in Is­rael, sci­en­tists have made the best of the jel­ly­fish in­fes­ta­tion. One Is­raeli startup, Cine’al, is at­tempt­ing to use dried jel­ly­fish car­casses, com­posed of 95% wa­ter, to cre­ate su­per-ab­sorbent ban­dages, tam­pons and di­a­pers. An­other, Safe Sea, has cre­ated an ef­fec­tive st­ing block. Sci­en­tists there even stud­ied the ef­fec­tive­ness of jel­ly­fish stingers as a drug de­liv­ery de­vice be­fore turn­ing their at­ten­tion to sea anemones.

For all its flaws, Ber­wald said, Is­rael is an “in­no­va­tion cen­ter… so they’re con­fronted with jel­ly­fish and they’re like, let’s come up with so­lu­tions.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KURT HOFF­MAN

BLOOM COUNTY: A worker picks up jel­ly­fish away af­ter be­ing fished out of the cool­ing wa­ter sup­ply at a power plant in the Is­raeli city of Hadera.

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