What started as an experimental fishery has now grown into the third largest volume export for Georgia. The harvest of cannonball jellyfish extends the working season for commercial trawlers, provided they use modified nets and possess a letter of authorization from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR). Prized for their texture and bland flavor, the jellyfish exports to Asia bring economic promise to a surprising U.S. fishery.
There’s nothing like a peanut better and jellyfish sandwich, right? Well not exactly. Different types of jellyfish have been harvested for human consumption in Asia for hundreds of years. Jellyfish are not utilized as a main course, but rather they are popular as condiments, a cooking ingredient or perhaps as a special topping. As populations in Asia increased in the 1990’s, so did their interest in foreign markets for jellyfish.
Jim Page is the biologist who oversees the jellyfish fishery for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “The initial cannonball jellyfish harvest came from Florida, and since they were well received in Asia, we opened an experimental season in 1998. Since then we have had five to eight trawlers participate each season in an experimental phase through 2012. Then in 2013 with some Title 27 revisions in Georgia state law, the jellyfish harvest became an official fishery.”
The 2013 jellyfish season ran from February 1 through July 15, and since jellyfish are a seasonal species the season is set to coincide when the larger jellyballs are off the coast. Georgia state waters run from zero to three miles out, and trawlers fishing there must hold state and commercial fishing licenses as well as the letter of authorization from GADNR. The trawling nets have a larger mesh than shrimping nets, making it easy for law enforcement officers to check and identify.
Of course jellyfish do occur in deeper waters but the GADNR does not set a quota for trawlers, rather that is left up to the buyer or processor. “We do require information from their trawls though like tow length times, landing stats, and documentation from an approved buyer, which helps control any wanton waste,” said Page.
The number of cannonball jellyfish in the ocean is not unlimited, but for now this fishery is limited by the processing capabilities of the sole plant set up for that duty located in Darien, Georgia. “The process involves dehydrating the jellyfish, which shrinks them down, and then they are sealed up in five-gallon buckets. The buckets are loaded on pallets and shipped out of Savannah,” said Page.
“The jellyfish fishery is becoming a big deal, even though it is small in size now,” said Page. It’s almost ironic that the status of cannonball jellyfish is changing from an unwanted bycatch to a resource that is helping trawlers find new life during tough economic times.
Of course it will take time for the slow-to-change Southern culture to embrace jellyfish harvest in other states where they are also plentiful. In other locales where the jellyfish are known as OK to handle thanks to their nonexistent sting, recreational fishermen have used them as bait to entice finicky spadefish to bite. With demand for jellyfish from Asian markets increasing, it puts a new focus on the natural resources of the Southeast.
Jeff Dennis is an outdoor writer and photographer who grew up on a creek in Charleston loving the saltwater, and he contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com