Box Jellyfish

The minimal amount of research on jellyfish calls for greater focus from the science community.

Jellyfish are no strangers to Waikīkī. They arrive once a month — sometimes in vast numbers — yet most people do not seem to know much about them, including scientists.

The Hawaiian box jellyfish (Alatina alata) has been reported on the south shore of O‘ahu for over 50 years. The first reported sighting at Waikīkī occurred in 1948, according to marine biologist Dr. Jerry Crow and his fellow researchers, and surveys conducted by Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services showed monthly occurrences from 1998 to 2011.  

So far, research has focused only on venom and treatments for pain. It is still not known whether the species is native or introduced to Hawai‘i. Clearly, there is a need for more research regarding these jellyfishes’ ecological role. Only recently has a major molecular study of the species been conducted by marine biologist Dr. Cheryl Ames and her fellow researchers.

The lack of data is surprising considering the effects that these marine creatures can have. There are jellyfish species that have been linked to disrupted fisheries in other parts of the world. From a common species of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) competing with herring in the North Sea, as reported by Dr. Christopher Lynam of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) and his team, to disruption of multiple fisheries by the combination of eutrophication and invasion by a species of comb jellyfish (Mnemiopsis leidyi) in multiple Mediterranean seas, as reported by Dr. Tamara Shiganova of the Russian Academy of Sciences and her team, jellyfish have shown themselves to be anything but harmless.

Before any conclusions can be drawn about the jellyfish in Hawai‘i, ecological information needs to be collected. What do they eat? What eats them? Where in the ocean are they found at each life stage? Answering these questions and others like them will help scientists understand the role of jellyfish in Hawai‘i’s marine ecosystem.  

Box jellyfish have not gone unnoticed. The question is, what does the public think about them? That is where my research comes in. I am seeking to understand how the ecosystem and society interact with one another – often in painful ways.

In July 1997, more than 700 people reported being stung. More recently, over 200 stings were reported in February 2016 by Hawaii News Now.

I conducted surveys on the beach to get close to people who interact with the ocean and enter an ocean ecosystem whether they realize it or not. I have found that basic awareness of the species is low: 48 percent of survey participants were aware of the occurrence of jellyfish from a survey of 346 people. Even on days that jellyfish warning signs were posted, 57 percent of visitors responded that they were unaware of the jellyfishes’ presence. In communities of Hawai‘i residents, 30 percent were unaware of the presence of jellyfish.

These initial findings indicate that current outreach methods are ineffective. Through my research, I hope to understand what factors are related to concern levels for jellyfish, whether increased education on the subject can decrease concerns of coastal hazards and what methods work best for sharing information with the most people. This information will be useful for creating outreach material that can have a broad impact and get the word out about these awesome animals. Friend or foe, the jellyfish’s relationship to us and the rest of Hawai‘i’s ecosystem could be much clearer.

Conservation Conversation is contributed by the Society for Conservation Biology Hawai‘i Chapter. To join the chapter and see more opportunities to get involved in conservation efforts in Hawai‘i visit www.hiscb.org.