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Steinberg under sail: Dining on jellyfish


Jellyfish may not have been on the menu for patrons sailing on the Alliance out of Yorktown in July, but with Deborah Steinberg onboard, jellyfish were served.

Specifically comb jellies, or Mnemiopsis, freshly hauled from the York, were offered to guests to observe, to hold or to eat. “Go ahead and try it,” Steinberg urged. “It tastes just like saltwater-flavored Jello!”

The hors d’oeuvres came toward the end of a two-hour cruise in which Steinberg, a zooplankton ecologist and a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), spoke in general about plankton, the small drifting plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) that inhabit the Earth’s waters. Her lecture summarized her research through VIMS, including her participation in climate-change based studies on zooplankton west of the Antarctic Peninsula, the monitoring the 1,000-mile Amazon plume in the North Atlantic, and additional studies in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda. For the most part, however, she focused her remarks on the Bay.

“In the Chesapeake, we’re particularly interested in the jelly-plankton,” she said. She described how “blooms of jellyfish” occur during the summer season, including vast increases in sea nettles, the creature most likely to sting a bather in the Bay. These blooms, she noted, are occurring approximately one month before they would have been expected to occur ten years ago, a pattern change she attributed to global warming. Because jellyfish are carnivores, eating fish larvae and young invertebrates, including crabs, the impact of their earlier arrival on the overall ecosystem is the subject of intense concern, she explained.

A highlight of the cruise was the plankton tow. Working in concert with Alliance captain Greg Lohse, Steinberg dropped a plankton net over the side and ultimately pulled up several specimens, including a sea nettle and comb jellies. Each was passed around, with a caution not to touch the nettle but with encouragement to handle and even partake of the comb jellies.

During the cruise, Steinberg passed around specimens recovered from her work worldwide, produced a package of jellyfish available in Chinese markets and quizzed fellow passengers concerning effective treatments for jellyfish stings. Dousing a sting with fresh water heightens the release of stinging toxins, she said. Likewise, the folk-remedy of urinating on the affected area aggravates the sting.

The best thing to do is to scrape the affected area with a credit card to remove the stinging cells and then to topically apply meat tenderizer, Steinberg said.

The “zooplankton” cruise was one of nine Wednesday afternoon “Science Under Sail” excursions aboard Alliance that featured scientists from VIMS during the summer.

According to Captain Lohse, the Science Under Sail series benefits both Alliance patrons and the schooner’s crew, who get to learn more about the Chesapeake watershed than otherwise would be possible. “It adds another dimension to our trips and just makes it more fun for us,” he said.