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Desperately Seeking Fishermen For Tales Of Jellyfish Encounters

Kristin Cieciel/NOAA


Do jellyfish affect Bering Sea fisheries? And if so, how?

That’s what Yale University’s Jonathan Rutter wants to find out. The college senior is conducting a survey to learn more about the gelatinous creatures directly from fishermen.


“What are these impacts that jellyfish have on Bering Sea fisheries?" Rutter said. "And those impacts could be economic- or nuisance-based. I’m going in it with a pretty open mind.”


The threat posed by jellyfish has been documented outside the Bering Sea. For example, Rutter says large jellyfish blooms became a huge nuisance for fishermen in the Sea of Japan in the early 2000s by damaging gear. One study estimated they lost more than $60 million in revenue.


Scientists have studied jellyfish in the Bering Sea as well. But Rutter says no one has really quantified their impact on commercial fishing.


“If jellyfish really aren’t that impactful at the end of the day, that also matters because these scientists keep saying that they might be without having any really solid data to stand on that claim," Rutter said. "So I think that will also benefit the fishing community as a whole.”


Rutter’s anonymous survey asks fishermen to respond to statements like “my vessel frequently catches jellyfish while fishing for our target species” and “my vessel loses potential catch because of jellyfish.”


The questionnaire takes 10 minutes to complete, and he says fishermen don't have to worry about sharing their tricks of the trade.


“All of those questions are going to be completely disconnected from any conclusions that I come up with at the end of the day," Rutter said. "They are not going to be attached to any identifiers.”


Rutter says he’s hoping to poll as many fishermen as possible to collect the best data.


His study is part of a growing movement in the research community to consider local expertise alongside scientific data.


“Social scientists make a point of considering local opinions and that sort of thing, but the two communities don’t interact enough in my opinion," Rutter said. "I think scientific data is meaningless unless it is grounded in personal experience and scientists have a tendency to get wrapped up in their world and models.”


Rutter hopes that if jellyfish are really significant, then he’ll be able to suggest things to make life easier for fishermen and help sustain their catches.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.
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