jelly bombs, cannon balls, cabbage heads or whatever you call
them, the month of November found them all over the soundside of
Ocracoke Island and southern Hatteras Island, rolling in on the
beaches, clogging up fishing nets, even making their way up onto docks.
A net full of jelly balls: Dinner anyone?
Ocracoke fisherman Wayne Teeter, owner of the Ocracoke Crab Company,
has been fishing these waters for about 55 years. He says he has "never
seen anything like it.”
"None of us has," he adds, "not in our lifetime."
The creatures under discussion are a kind of jellyfish, marine
invertebrates characterized by radial (circular) symmetry belonging to
the phylum Coelenterata. Known by the scientific name Stomolophus
meleagris, which means many mouthed hunter, jelly balls can grow up to
10 inches in diameter. They are bell shaped with a chocolate-colored
band around the edge, below which hangs a cluster of "oral arms"--
appendages that extend out around the mouth. These arms aid in
propulsion and in catching their prey--zooplankton such as veligers and
fish larvae. Eight sensory capsules, or rhopalia, sense light, odor,
and position and control the rate of contraction of the swimming
Jelly balls are found from New England to Brazil, but they are
most common from the Carolinas south. They live from three to six
months, going through several complex sexual changes.
These jellyfish do not have stinging tentacles, but they do have
nematocysts that secrete a somewhat toxic mucous when they are
disturbed. This toxin keeps most predators away, although it does not
discourage spadefish or the huge leatherback sea turtles that feed upon
them. (Many leatherbacks die each year because they mistake plastic
bags floating in the ocean for their favorite food--jellyfish.)
Nor are spider crabs disturbed by the toxin. These arthropods
have a symbiotic relationship with jelly balls, hitching rides on their
undersides and feeding on the prey that the jellyfish catch and on the
medusae of the creature itself. The toxin can be harmful to humans,
however-- painful if a person gets it in his eyes, and possibly can
even affect the heart, causing cardiac problems.
It is not unusual for jelly bombs to wash up here at this
year. They almost always do so in late summer or fall, according to
another Ocracoke fisherman, Gene Ballance. He said that their arrival
usually signals the approaching end of the flounder season. Tillman
Gray of Avon Seafood agreed that their presence is normal, and he said
that he has not noticed anything unusual in the Avon area.
Further south, however, near Hatteras Inlet, Pam Johnson, who works at
Frisco Tackle, has been seeing far more than usual and at the Scotch
Bonnet Marina they have even been coming on the docks -- possibly, she
guesses, seeking warmer water.
Ocracoke pound net fishermen David Hilton and Rex O’Neal both remarked
at the unusual number of these jellyfish.
"We got nailed," said Hilton. “They (the jelly balls) filled up the
tunnels and clogged out the fish."
O’Neal said that he had 5,000 to 6,000 jelly balls in each net on one
really bad day.
“They don’t really do any harm," he explained. "But they’re heavy, and
we have to get them out of the nets. We don’t hurt them -- just roll
them out and they swim away."
There has been preponderance, not only of cannon balls, but
several other species of jellyfish in the waters along the Outer Banks
this summer and fall, according to North Carolina Aquarium educator Dia
Hitt. The scientists, she says, have theories that might explain their
high numbers, but do not have answers.
The numbers may be the result of wind direction and strength,
heavy rains that lower the salinity of the sound, or a combination of
both. Some speculate that jellies may be increasing as a result of
warming waters, caused by climate change.
I have my own hypothesis, at least about the cannon balls.
I worked part-time at the Tradewinds Bait and Tackle Shop on Ocracoke
Island this past fall and heard the fishermen raving about what a great
red drum season it was -- the best in years. In researching cannon
balls, I read that their main food source is the larvae of red drum,
which are produced from mid-August through November.
Maybe the jelly balls were here because the red drum larvae were here,
and they were hungry.
But in reading further, I wondered if Ocracoke’s commercial
fishermen weren’t missing out on a sure bet.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, cannon ball
jellyfish have "great potential value as a food item."
Their protein contains a high percentage of collagen, needed for our
cartilage, teeth, and bones. Asians have been consuming them for
thousands of years, believing that they helped cure high blood
pressure, arthritis, and other ailments.
Apparently, cannon ball jellies are the caviar of jellyfish
the most desirable and healthful. Research indicates that the Asian use
of cannon ball jellyfish for treating arthritis is supported by
They are considered a delicacy in Japan, according to the Georgia
Department of Natural Resources, and Asians assert that their crunchy
texture is "music to the teeth." Several cannon ball fisheries already
exist in this country, and there are many more overseas.
How, I wondered, do you prepare and eat these jellyfish?
Cannon balls (jelly balls or whatever you want to call them) are about
95 percent water, so first they need to be dehydrated, a process
accomplished with the use of salt. Later they can be rehydrated by
soaking in water, cutting in strips, and cooking them to be used in
salads, stews, or other seafood recipes.
So, how about it? Next time the Ocracoke Working Waterman’s
Association has a fundraiser, instead of an oyster roast, try a jelly