MARINA di GINOSA, Italy — As a small boat loaded with wet suits, lab equipment and empty coolers drifted into the warm turquoise sea, Stefano Piraino looked back at the sunbathers on the beach and explained why none of them set foot in the water.
“They know the jellyfish are here,” said Piraino, a professor of zoology at the University of Salento.
While tourists throughout Europe seek out Apulia, in Italy’s southeast, for its Baroque whitewashed cities and crystalline seas, swarms of jellyfish are also thronging to its waters.
Climate change is making the waters warmer for longer, allowing the creatures to breed gelatinous generation after gelatinous generation.
The jellyfish population explosion has blossomed for years but got a special boost since 2015 with the broadening of the Suez Canal, which opened up an aquatic superhighway for invasive species to the Mediterranean.
The jellyfish invasion has now reached the point where there may be little to do but find a way to live with huge numbers of them, say scientists like Piraino.
Jellyfish are still treated, literally, like trash. The European Commission’s research and innovation branch recently considered jellyfish blooms, along with aquatic debris and pollution, a form of litter that posed “huge and increasing problems in the oceans, seas and coasts.”
The commission made funds available for researchers with innovative methods to clean the waters. Piraino and his team have answered the call.
Convinced that climate change and overfishing will force Italians to adapt, as they once did to other foreign intruders, like the tomato, his team has launched the Go Jelly project, which roughly boils down to, if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.
The study, which officially gets underway in January, will attempt to show that the enormous and increasing jellyfish biomasses can be the inexhaustible Jell-O of the sea.
While overfishing, warmer seas and pollution may wipe out ocean predators, they are allowing jellyfish to thrive — and reproduction comes easily enough to jellyfish.
They can be self-reproducing hermaphrodites, clone themselves, lay up to 45,000 eggs a day, sprout from polyps, and split in two. When a power plant in Japan tried to solve its jellyfish problem with a grinder, they only exponentially increased their problem.
“You can’t reduce their number,” said Piraino, adding that you can hope only to contain them.
To protect bathers from stinging species, Piraino has led several European Union-funded jellyfish studies, (“I ran JellyRisk,” he said) set up a global jellyfish spotting campaign and protected beaches from inedible poisonous jellyfish with state-of-the-art, jellyfish-proof netting.
The problem is bigger than Italy. More than 30 million euros of tourism revenue is lost a year along Israel’s Mediterranean shore.
“Imagine a biomass the size of the world’s largest oil tanker cruising along the coast,” Piraino said.
In 2013, outbreaks of jellyfish forced the shutdown of a nuclear power plant in Sweden. In the Irish Sea, they decimated salmon fisheries.
In Sicily, where a young Piraino first came head to soft-bodied head with his life’s work (“it was not a positive first contact”), they have clogged fishing nets and colonized beaches.
Piraino has plumbed the mysteries of the creature, more than half-a-billion years old, for its possible uses. Those include the potential to fight tumors, and also using collagen-heavy species as a source for more voluptuous lips.
Then, there is food.
Antonella Leone is a researcher at Italy’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, and since about two months ago, Piraino’s wife. At their wedding this summer, the couple celebrated with a tiered cake dripping with confectionary jellyfish.
A leader of the Go Jelly project, she thinks that Italians, with their zeal for locally sourced regional ingredients, might just find a taste for jellyfish.
Others already have. The Japanese serve them sashimi style in strips with soy sauce, and the Chinese have eaten them for a millennium.
In 2015, an EU regulation streamlined the application process for countries outside the bloc that wanted to market foods traditionally not eaten in Europe — like an Asian species of jellyfish — if they proved to pose no risk and had been consumed safely in that foreign country for more than 25 years.
The law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, also removes bureaucratic impediments faced by European proponents of homegrown “novel foods,” including those who favor eating the Mediterranean jellyfish.
But the Italian Health Ministry said that since no member state had a tradition of eating jellyfish and since the local species appeared biologically distinct from their edible Asian cousins with different toxicity levels and variations in stinging cells, the ministry said all the standard European research and safety-control tests needed to remain in force before a Mediterranean jellyfish could ever appear as a wild-caught delicacy in markets or on restaurant menus.
It was for such research that Leone slipped on her diving fins.
“Look, it’s enormous,” she said as she spotted one species, a pulsating violet-rimmed Rhizostoma pulmo — aka barrel jellyfish — drifting like a submerged plastic bag.
She dived into the jellyfish-infested waters and returned with nets full of violet globules.
As a tortoise, moving like a shadow in the water, arrived for its favorite slippery snack, Piraino explained how the changing climate will force people to follow the lead of the turtle or, more specifically, the Italian fisherman who once told him he liked to fry jellyfish and hungered for jellyfish ragu.
On deck, Lorena Basso, another climate researcher who has a grant to study the sexual distribution of jellyfish, used a scalpel and scissors to separate the animal’s bell-shaped umbrella from its tentacles, which glistened in the sun like dripping, translucent cauliflower.
“What she is doing now is taking the gonads of the jellyfish,” Piraino explained before calling out to his wife. “Antonella. Get me the one with the colored gonads.”
Back on board, Leone patiently held a jellyfish above a jar, draining it of its stinging mucous, with gloved hands that seemed slimed by innumerous sneezes.
“Would you like to taste it?” Piraino asked.
Once at their headquarters in the baroque city of Lecce, Leone put on a lab coat and experimented with ways to conserve the jellyfish.
She prepared to freeze dry and vacuum pack them and asked a colleague to pull a species from the barrel. He put his hand in but came up empty.
“What are you,” she asked, “scared?”
The next morning, a restaurant near the university in Lecce became a test kitchen.
As the defrosting jellyfish seemed to reanimate under the faucet’s running water, the restaurant’s chef asked if he should salt the boiling water. Leone told him it would not be necessary. He asked how to cut the tentacles from the cap.
“Like a mushroom,” Piraino explained.
They boiled the first batch for a few minutes to remove its water and destroy its stinging cells. The chef, with a dubious, hesitant expression, sliced the boiled jellyfish, now cerebral in appearance with a deeper purple hue.
Another cook then slid the slices through a flour batter and dropped them in a fryer. Once plated, they broke free of their casing and insolently stuck out like purple tongues.
Piraino cut a piece that he said was full of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
“It’s great,” he said, as it slipped out of his hand.
The chef marinated a piece in garlic and basil for the grill. He prepared another on a bed of arugula next to a sweet fig to balance out what everyone agreed was an intense saltiness.
At the end of the tasting, there were several untouched specimens on the table. Leone packed the foodstuff of the globally warmed future into a jellyfish doggy bag.
“It’s for my colleagues,” she said. “They are a little skeptical.”