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March 5, 2012

Who's afraid of jellyfish?

The jellyfish are not taking over the oceans after all, according to a new peer-reviewed scientific study.

The work of 18 scientists in the February issue of BioScience magazine undercuts the claim most closely associated with a political manifesto by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, herself a distinguished scientist, made in her previous position as an officer of Environmental Defense Fund.

That thesis, "Oceans of Abundance," was that uncontrolled fishing will leave nothing in the seas except jellyfish, unless the wild resources were immediately privatized and commodified, fitted into the global investment market via catch shares' trading.

The thesis has been transformed into U.S. policy by the Obama presidency, with Lubchenco appointed to head oceans and fisheries in 2009 and working since then to complete the re-engineering of one of the nation's oldest industries.

In the New England groundfishery, catch share trading has accelerated consolidation, adding to unemployment and to the holdings of the best capitalized fishing businesses. NOAA figures show that the Gloucester groundfishing fleet alone saw some two dozen of the harbor's then-95 boats driven to the sidelines in the 2010 fishing year, the first under the catch-share system.

In the new report, the scientists found no signs that human and natural factors were clearing the way for jellyfish mastery of the seas.

"Coupled with media-driven perception," wrote the team headed by Robert H. Condon, of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, "a paradigm has evolved in which the global ocean ecosystems are thought to be heading toward being dominated by 'nuisance' jellyfish."

No justification

Although the authors found no justification for that conclusion, they pointed to the public fascination with and repulsion from the "gelatinous zooplankton" — which sting and can even kill in spite of their icky, seemingly inoffensive appearance — to explain the phenomenon of fear surrounding a future jellyfish dominance of the world's oceans.

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