'Jellyballs' Are Serious Business

The controversy over the South's weird new fishing industry
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American shrimpers started harvesting jellyballs for export to Asia about a decade ago—turns out a Georgia fisherman's sea trash is an Asian restaurant's delicacy. (AP)

Most Floridians, Georgians, and Carolinians do not like to eat jellyballs. That's what most coastal Southerners call cannonball jellyfish—Stomolophus meleagriswhich are also known as cabbage-head jellyfish. They're harmless, small, and among the least venomous of all jelly species, and they're particularly abundant on the southeastern seaboard. According to Hanna Raskin of the Charleston Post and Courier, jellyballs are "bland at best," and they've often been subject to culinary derision.

But perhaps it's time to stop joking about jellyfish sandwiches. The small creatures have been an economic lifeline for American shrimpers, who export them to Asia, where, especially in China, Japan, and Thailand, dried jellies are standard fare. There are full-fledged jellyball fisheries in Georgia and Florida, and South Carolina may be about to get its first jellyball processing plant. The growth of this market is a sign of economic and environmental changes on scales large and small, but it's also surprisingly controversial.

Carolina Jelly Balls, a new harvesting facility in South Carolina, was supposed to start operating in February 2014, but it ran into fierce opposition. Jellyball fisheries pose threats to sea turtles and oyster farms, and they're dirty and smelly, naysayers argue. The coalition behind stopthejellyballs.com says that Carolina Jelly Balls would "destroy the local groundwater, pollute the air with noxious odor of processed jellyfish, and poison the Whale Branch [River] with its discharge."

It was supposed to be a solution. When there are too many jellyfish in the sea, recruiting workers from other fisheries to commercialize jellies seems like a no-brainer. The "if you can't beat them, eat them" approach is endorsed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and over the past decade, southern fishermen have been applying it. As Raskin reported earlier this year:

In the 1980s, the round jellyfish swarmed Florida waters so thickly that Florida Power & Light was forced to close one of its nuclear power plants for days so it could purge its water-intake pipes of smothering jellyfish blooms.

Keen to mitigate the problem, a marine researcher in 1993 produced the state's first test batch of jellyballs for consumption. 

Since 1998, shrimping boats in Georgia have been spending part of the year trawling for cannonball jellyfish under a pilot program, but they only had their first official season as a commercial fishery in 2013.

"The jellyfish industry has been about the best thing that's happened to us," said Howell Boone, a Georgia shrimp trawler, in a January interview with NPR. "The shrimp season [of 2013] was the worst ever in history here." 

The CEO of Carolina Jelly Balls, Steven Giese, told NPR that fishermen can make up to $10,000 a day by trawling for jellies, and, "In one jellyfish season, a fisherman can make as much money as he makes in three or four shrimp seasons." 

Giese's operation will be able to process 5 million pounds of jellyfish per week, and he estimates it will create about 100 new jobs. That is, if the plant ever opens—a public meeting was held in late April to discuss the facility's fate, but no final decision has been made.

As TakePart's Willy Blackmore explained last year, "you can't fairly judge the impact a fishery will have on the fish (or jellyfish), other species that may be affected, and the environment they live in without looking at statistics over a period of time." Maybe by the time Carolina Jelly Balls proves it is environmentally-friendly, Americans will have developed a taste for jellyballs, creating the potential for a domestic market.

Or maybe not. As Blackmore wrote of Georgia's jellyball scene:

Would sustainable cred turn Georgia’s jellyballs into the new local darling of Atlanta’s dining scene? They are long on protein and collegen, which help lure the kale-and-quinoa crowd. But at the end of the day, it’s the bland flavor and texture that, outside of Asia, are the biggest hurdle to get past. Thornell King, who catches jellyballs in Georgia, told Voice of America last year, “Actually they taste a little like the gristle of a chicken bone.” Which, even in this nose-to-tail era of dining, might be a tough sell.

Jellyballs seem great for shrimpers and great for the Southern fishing business, but it's unclear whether they're sustainable, both environmentally and economically. It might be better to focus on preserving what's left of the ocean's tastier fish.

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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