Jellyfish may well be awe-inspiring, ethereal beings that have survived for an unprecedented 500 million years, but they’re also weird and irritating marine blobs that regularly sting people, de-rail fishing operations and feed on fish larvae, wiping out ocean diversity.
And as the seas get warmer and more polluted, these effects are set to multiply. Jellies have emerged in huge numbers around Italy and in the Norwegian fjords, filling a gap left by the decline of commercial fishing stock. One of their natural predators, the sea turtle, has been known to ingest plastic bags instead of jellies themselves.
To be blunt, the rise of the jellyfish suggests the oceans are in bad shape. But some scientists, including Danish biophysicist Mathias P Clausen, have an innovative vision for the future: using jellyfish as replacement for everyday activity.
Along with a team of scientists at the University of Southern Denmark, Clausen has developed an ethanol-based process to create jellyfish chips that he says “have a crispy texture” and, in particularly dry terms, “could be of potential gastronomic interest”.
This is not that off-the-wall: Jellyfish have been a delicacy in parts of East Asia for almost 2,000 years. Jellyballing, the process of catching jellyfish, is one of the largest commercial fishing industries in the US, and the fish are a rich source of health-inducing vitamin B12, magnesium and iron.
According to Fast Company, Clausen’s crisps are milky-white with a salty, seaweed-like flavour. It takes a lot of work to make the product, as jellyfish would disintegrate if they were simply boiled, but the implication is that preparing and eating jellyfish could be a good way to control populations and replace some commercial fish as a regular food course.
“As this is pioneering work, I think using tools available to us to tackle the science of good eating can open people’s eyes for a completely new scientific field,” Clausen said in a statement.
The researcher’s work is supported by a European Union-funded programme, Go Jelly, which ultimately wants to use jellyfish mucus to make nets that can catch ocean plastic. In the meantime, its team of partner researchers are testing out other potential uses for the ancient ocean floater. These include processing jellyfish biomass to see if jellyfish are good soil fertilisers, under the leadership of researchers at Hanseatische Umwelt CAM GmbH. Others are testing how to use jellyfish in anti-aging creams; if they could form a good base for nappies and sanitary pads, given their absorbent qualities; and whether they’re a viable source of food in fish farms, instead of the wild fish usually used.
Who knows how successful the projects will be. Go Jelly, at least, sees a future: It plans to bring the jelly crisps and other products to market by 2021, if they become popular.
Mathias P. Clausen