December 14, 2010

A net full of jelly balls:  Dinner anyone?


Jelly balls, 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.

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 muscles.

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 time of 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 of 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 science.

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 ball stew!

 Comments are always welcomed!

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