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In Praise of the Jellyfish, from Menace to Resource

In Praise of the Jellyfish, from Menace to Resource

Low in calories, with a very interesting texture, jellyfish represent the latest frontier when it comes to alternative seafood resources.

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What would you say if jellyfish, instead of stinging you, were to end up on your plate? Not particularly rich in intrinsic taste, they do act as a vehicle for other flavours. They are very low in calories and have an interesting texture. In the wake of algae, they represent the latest frontier when it comes to alternative seafood resources. In some Asian countries – China first and foremost, but also Japan and Thailand - the consumption of jellyfish as a food dates back thousands of years: salads, pasta, sushi, main courses or even ice-cream. A real delicacy.

In a way that apparently resembles that of sea vegetables, eating jellyfish seem to be on their way to abandoning an ethnic niche to become a mainstream solution to the unprecedented depletion of the oceans and a drastic reduction in the most commercially exploited species of fish, crustaceans and molluscs. A research paper recently published in the science magazine, Ocean & Coastal Management, illustrates how historical data reveal a depletion scenario that is much more serious than our “cultural amnesia” allows us to see.

With over 450 million jellyfish being harvested as food every year, including 66,000 tons of livestock, the business continues to attract new operators. Owing to many factors – from climate change to the decimation of sea turtles, one of their few predators – the jellyfish population is growing at a dangerous rate in the planet’s seas, causing commercial damage that is increasingly evident and exporting deadly species to ever new corners of the world. “If you cannot beat them, eat them” seems to be the mantra adopted in recent years by the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). In the US state of Georgia, jellyfish fishing has become the new burgeoning industry: as yet, no statistics are available but it is worth a few million dollars and, despite being subjected to regulatory norms only two years ago, it has already become the state’s third most important fishing activity (after crabs and prawns).

The number of processing plants is also increasing: a success story in which jellyfish, once a menace, have now become a resource. When the prawn season is over, operators get to work on these jelly-like creatures. Which finally end up on Asian dinner tables. At least, for the time being. Since they are considered to be an invasive and harmful species for our seas, they risk being fished indiscriminately and unscrupulously: in actual fact, the fishing of this species also needs to be regulated in order to protect sea turtles, for example, which risk going without their dinner in the absence of jellyfish. In some parts of the world they are actually exposed to the risk of overfishing: this is why a certain amount of the jellyfish consumed in Asia now come from the United States.

In those countries where they have never been part of the national culinary tradition, consumers are somewhat loathe to eat them, at least at present. It is rather similar to eating insects: 2 billion people in the world do it while the other 5 million are horrified even by the thought. However, some believe that it is easier for jellyfish to catch on: after all, in the 50’s the average American would have immediately rejected the idea of eating raw fish while, today, he happily shops for sushi in his local supermarket. Besides, there are more and more campaigns promoting the consumption of this food: as early as two years ago, Italian chefs were “called to arms” to present jellyfish-based recipes in the interests of sustainable fishing; at Expo 2015, these creatures composed of water and collagen protein were showcased as the unquestioned protagonists of “tomorrow’s food”. Tasting sessions are starting to make a timid appearance in seaside restaurants...

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