Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cannonball Jellyfish: Eat Up Americans

Do you enjoy eating jellyfish? I'm guessing many of you do not.

In the past, the gelatinous texture of (or the perception of such) jellyfish dishes has prevented me from enjoying it. Last Spring, I dined at Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a bit hesitant at one point, knowing that a dish of Cannonball Jellyfish Nigiri  was coming to our table. How would I handle that gelatinous texture this time? To be polite, would I need to eat it despite my dislike of its taste? Spitting it out would not be acceptable.

However, when it came to the table, it didn't look like other jellyfish I had seen (see the photo above). It had a pinkish hue to it, and had been topped by a spicy roasted sesame marinade. When I tasted it, I found the texture to be more firmer, almost the springiness of a gummy bear. It wasn't that mushy gelatinous feel that is off-putting to me. In fact, the Cannonball Jellyfish was quite tasty, and I would definitely order it again. Kudos to Chef Bun Lai for preparing this delectable delight.

But what is a Cannonball Jellyfish?

Also known as a cabbage head jellyfish or jellyball, it acquired its primary name because it resembles a cannonball's shape and size. Its dome-shaped cap can grow to about 10 inches in diameter and beneath the cap are numerous,short tentacles. Though they generally do not sting humans, they still possess a toxin which can cause cardiac problems, so care needs to be taken when catching them. Cannonball jellyfish can be found along the East Coast as far south as Brazil and also in parts of the Pacific Ocean. It is the Gulf Coast which seems to be capitalizing the most on the great presence of these jellyfish.

They are seasonal creatures, generally seen from the later winter into the summer, and are more than abundant in the Gulf waters. Once seen as a nuisance, fishermen in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, are starting to reap significant profits from these jellyfish. When they are plentiful, a vessel can fill its trawl net in only five minutes, and must be careful not to leave their net in the water too long or they'll have such a heavy load their nets won't be able to handle it. Fishermen garner about 9 or 10 cents per pound, and can earn $5,000 to $10,000 a day. Certainly a lucrative business.

In Georgia, the cannonball jellyfish industry began as an experimental fishery, eventually becoming a recognized fishery in 2013. During the experimental period, the sustainability of the fishery was examined and the result was that populations remained stable, justifying the establishment of a recognized fishery. Jellyfish trawlers in Georgia must adhere to a number of regulations, including a Turtle Excluder Device (TED), to prevent the capture of leatherback sea turtles. It has become Georgia’s third largest commercial fishery, after shrimp and crab, and that is even more remarkable when you consider the tiny amount of licensed vessels.

Only five vessels can legally catch cannonball jellyfish. Just five! The primary reason for this limitation is that there is only a single processor and exporter in Georgia, Marco Seafood, which can only handle approximately 22,000 thousand kilos of jellyfish at a time. At the processing plant, the jellyfish bodies are salted, dried, preserved and packaged. During that process, the jellyfish lose 80% to 90% of their weight.

The vast majority of this processed jellyfish is exported to Japan, China and Thailand as there is very little market for them in the U.S. The Asians often use the jellyfish in soups and salads, and even believe the cannonball jellyfish has medicinal properties, such as relieving pain from arthritis. Though the flesh is considered relatively bland, Asians enjoy and savor the texture, which they refer to as crunchy-crispy.

In South Carolina, Steven Giese is hoping to launch a significant cannonball fishery with the creation of a new processing plant called Carolina Jelly Balls. This plant would be about five times as large as the Georgia plant. However, he has encountered some fierce resistance to his plan from locals. As such, the future of this new processing plant is ambiguous though if the Georgia plant has worked well, it would seem to give some proof in support of Giese's plans.

Is cannonball jellyfish sustainable? It doesn't appear that the major seafood sustainability organizations, like Seafood Watch, have spoken on this issue, generally because it isn't a matter they have studied well. We do know that jellyfish populations all across the world seem to be expanding in recent years. In addition, Georgia authorities have monitored their fishery for over 12 years, and there didn't appear to be any issues with sustainability. These fisheries are certainly worth watching over time, but for now, it seems cannonball jellyfish should be sustainable.

Why aren't more  Americans eating cannonball jellyfish? Chef Bun Lai proved to me that a simple, tasty dish can be made from this jellyfish. The texture shouldn't be an issue with anyone who enjoys squid or octopus. These jellyfish are also low in calories and high in protein, so they are good for you too. As I've said repeatedly, and most recently last week, Americans need to diversify the types of seafood they eat, to expand beyond the six basic species they usually consume. More chefs also need to work with this jellyfish, to create enticing dishes which will attract more people to it. Opposition to eating these jellyfish may be more psychological than anything else, so it is time to get over that issue and embrace the cannonball jellyfish.

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