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Jellyfish showing up early at local beaches

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published July 27. 2010 4:00AM   Updated July 27. 2010 4:01AM
Appearance usually not made till late August; swimmers reporting stings, but nothing serious

Most summers, swimmers at local beaches don't start seeing those annoying, tentacled creatures known as jellyfish until sometime in August.

This summer, the translucent blobs started undulating through coastal waters at the beginning of July, though in moderate numbers.

"It's been very early," Bonnie Mello, beach manager at Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly, said Monday. "We're seeing one or two stings a day."

Moon jellies, the clear and smaller of the two most common types locally, are most of what's been seen so far. But a few of the reddish, larger lion's mane jellies have been carried with the tides into the region as well.

Of the two, lion's mane packs the stronger sting, though neither's sting is usually serious enough to warrant treatment stronger than a spray of vinegar to quell the sensation.

"Last week it was pretty bad, but today we've had none, so maybe they're gone," said David Sugrue, manager of Ocean Beach Park in New London. "They started coming in the second week of July instead of in late August. It used to be you knew the end of summer by when the jellyfish came in."

At Waterford Town Beach, jellyfish arrived just after the beach opened for the season and children were starting swim lessons. Ryan McNamara, assistant recreation and parks director for the town, said their small numbers didn't interfere with the lessons.

Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme also had an early appearance by jellyfish, but their numbers have gone down lately, said Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. When the waters were flush with jellies, the first aid station at the busy public beach had been seeing two to three people a day for jellyfish stings, he said.

The reason for the early arrivals appears at least in part due to warmer-than-normal water this summer. At Misquamicut, for example, the water is 76 degrees, Mello said, a temperature usually not reached until mid-August. At Ocean Beach, the water is 74 degrees.

At the New England Aquarium in Boston, a special exhibit on jellyfish running through the end of August is highlighting some of the factors helping them to thrive, said Tony LaCasse, aquarium spokesman.

"Over the last several decades," he said, "there's been a documented significant increase in the density and numbers of jellyfish in all the coastal areas of North America."

Their early arrival this year in Long Island Sound, as well as in other areas of New England, LaCasse said, could be due to a combination of warm water temperatures, particular patterns of ocean currents and nutrient overloading. He noted an incident at a New Hampshire beach last week in which about 150 people were stung by the stray tentacles of a huge lion's mane jellyfish that had broken apart when a lifeguard tried to remove it from the water.

LaCasse recalled the spring floods that caused overflows at many sewage treatment plants in New England that empty into coastal waters, releasing nutrients that fed algae blooms. When the algae die, they consume oxygen and become food for jellyfish, which also eat plankton, fish larvae and fish eggs. An abundance of jellyfish also means fewer adult fish, some of which eat jellies.

"If you have polluted water with reduced oxygen and increased temperatures, you'll see more jellyfish," LaCasse said. "They're able to compete better against the finfish."

j.benson@theday.com

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