Warming Waters Bring Threats of Jellyfish, Infections

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
May 28, 2014; 12:15 AM ET
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A beautiful, but potentially harmful, Portuguese man o' war sea jelly washed up onto the beach. Photo by Olaf Gradin.

Warmer waters may conjure up ideas of beach-time fun, but they also bring an increase in sea life that may bring threats to those on the shore.

Tony LaCasse, biologist and spokesperson for the New England Aquarium in Boston, explained that increases in summer temperatures bring some additional species to more northern beaches, and people don't always know the right way to handle these new additions to their shores.

One of the main threats that increases at the ocean as the summertime approaches is jellyfish, or sea jellies. LaCrosse said there has been a higher presence of them in New England this summer.

"They're here every year," he said.

Watch part of our interview with Tony LaCasse from the July 25 edition of AccuWeather LIVE

"Numbers have been increasing over the last couple of decades, because they do better in warmer water, and they actually, believe it or not, do better when there's more pollution."

LaCasse explained that nutrient runoff in urban waters, such as from fertilizers on lawns, creates preferable environments for sea jellies. These nutrients create algae blooms which can impact the water environment for other species, helping sea jellies to outcompete them.

There are several species of sea jellies present in the Atlantic, ranging from the relatively benign moon jelly to the infamous Portuguese man o' war.

The fairly innocuous moon jelly is often found washed up on beaches. They are recognizable by their grayish color and their saucerlike size. (Photo/Scott Sandars.

"Those sea jellies aren't going to be preying on people. That's not anything to be worried about," LaCasse said. "It's more a matter of just avoiding in terms of those kind of stinging cells."

The biggest chance for people to encounter sea jellies is if they are washed up onto the shore. Tom Gill, media representative for the United States Lifesaving Association, said that the best thing people can do if they encounter a jellyfish on the beach is to avoid it.

"Even dead they can still hurt you," Gill said. "They can still have those stinging toxins on them."

Incidents with jellyfish are infrequent, and very few species of sea jellies in the United States are especially dangerous to people; most of the ones that can be serious threats are found around southern Florida. Gill said that the biggest danger they create is pain, and not many home remedies work well to heal it.

What to Do if a Sea Jelly Stings

1. Find something to wipe the area with to remove any leftover tentacles.

2. Rinse the area with salt water to help dull the pain.

3. Wait for the pain to subside; for a standard sting, not much else can be done.

4. Seek immediate emergency medical attention if:
-Swelling occurs
-Redness spreads across the skin beyond the infected area
-Breathing becomes short

Severe reactions to jelly stings are very rare.

While people aim to avoid jellyfish, several species of endangered sea turtles will seek them out for a meal in warmer summer waters. The northern parts of the Atlantic do not stay favorable for sea turtles for long, however.

"Later in the autumn, we actually get strandings of dozens, to some years hundreds, of sea turtles" LaCasse said. "These are all young, inexperienced animals that don't get out early enough before the water temperature drops."

Sea turtles are a particularly vulnerable animal, especially the leatherback sea turtle, which lacks a hard, protective shell that other sea turtle species have.

The Kemp's ridley, the most endangered of all sea turtles, can be found in northern waters in the summer. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Every year we have dozens of these turtles that are hit by mostly recreational boats south of Cape Cod, and that results in the death of those animals," LaCasse said. "So that's an animal we are particularly interested in having boaters be aware of."

Sea turtles can also become snared on ropes from boats, fishing lines or lobster traps. While an incredibly dangerous situation for the animal, LaCasse emphasized that jumping in the water to untangle them is not a viable solution.

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"If that turtle has lots of ropes around it, it's very easy for somebody in the water to be able to get caught up," he said. "That turtle is a very good swimmer and can hold its breath for 25 or 30 minutes, but if somebody gets caught up in those lines, they will drown in a matter of minutes."

Sea life threats are not limited to things people can see. An additional threat to beachgoers in the summer is an increase in harmful bacteria. Warmer temperatures, especially following an influx of rain, can harbor the potential for infection.

"Massachusetts, even though it has a great oceanic environment, is also densely populated, so what will typically happen is that the warmer the water, the better environment it is for either algae or bacteria to be able to reproduce and sustain itself."

Fortunately, public beaches are checked regularly to ensure that water levels are safe to swim and fish in. Hopeful beachgoers should be sure to check flag warnings for their area and abide by any closures that are put in place.

Gill emphasized this point, stating that the best way for people to stay safe at the beach in any condition is to heed all issued warnings and to listen to lifeguards. Staying on beaches that have a lifeguard helps to ensure that visitors are in water that is most likely being regulated for quality. If a person is concerned about the water conditions or possible beach threats, he or she should immediately seek out the lifeguard on their beach upon arrival. Visiting the USLA website can help beachgoers find a shore near them that will be protected by licensed lifeguards.

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