Jellyfish not swarming to Myrtle Beach

A squishy situation has appeared along the East Coast, but Grand Strand beaches haven't felt much sting from jellyfish.

Notorious for gathering near the coast in summer months, swarms covering hundreds of square miles in many popular vacation and fishing destinations have been reported, according to the National Science Foundation.

In fact, alarms are going off that jellyfish swarms are taking over the world's oceans - starving out food fish, injuring and killing swimmers, overloading the nets and capsizing fishing boats and clogging the pipes to power plants and nuclear vessels, experts say.

The fear is that warmer waters, overfishing and pollution are depleting other species while giving jellyfish the habitat they need to bloom.

Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet hasn't had too many conflicts with the spineless creatures, but the real influx usually comes in July.

Kyle Bullock, park assistant manager, said a few have washed up, and though people are on the lookout for an increased number of jellyfish, Huntington Beach isn't expecting a problem, especially during the busy tourist season.

"We're not really known to have major problems with jellies," Bullock said. "We're not anticipating anything out of the normal."

Pearse Webster, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources marine biologist, conducts near-shore trawls in the spring, summer and fall each year for the SEAMAP-SA Coastal Survey. During a sampling this spring he was "inundated with cannonball jellies," but two weeks later they had all disappeared.

"We are likely to see periods of jellyfish that are usual to our coast," Webster said. "But I haven't seen any reason to be alarmed; they come and go with the current."

Jellies are usually densest in the ocean south of Winyah Bay, Webster said, and should cause little concern for residents and visitors to S.C. beaches.

"It's not any reason to decide not to come to Myrtle Beach this year or in the future," Webster said.

He recommends people simply keep a lookout while swimming.

"If they see jellyfish with long tentacles streaming down, they might not want to be in there."

Unlike man o'war jellies, the cannonball variety rarely stings humans because they lack the long, floating tentacles common among other species. Robert Young, a marine biologist professor at Coastal Carolina University, said cannonballs are the most common along this coast.

"In our area, we don't have any lethal jellyfish but certainly some that can sting you," Young said. "You can handle [cannonballs] for the most part and not get stung."

If snagged by a jellyfish stinger, Young recommends gently pulling out the tentacle with tweezers or by hand. Some people pack wet sand to cool the sting, but Young also proposes using meat tenderizer to soothe the pain. Cannonball stings usually only hurt for 30 minutes, Young said, unless there's an allergic reaction.

In a 2010 feature, Smithsonian Magazine counted jellyfish blooms as one of 40 things to know about the next 40 years, suggesting the jellies might be on their way to dominating the biomass, or organisms in the oceans. The article pointed out that the creatures are reproducing in astonishing numbers and showing up where they had not been seen before.

At least one researcher has suggested that, as reliant as society is on the ocean for food, people better get used to eating jellyfish.

And they are edible. Jellyfish is a traditional Asian dish. A crop is now harvested off the Georgia coast. Two Lowcountry teens were among a group that was swept out to sea in 2005 and drifted 111 miles in a week. They survived partly by eating jellyfish.

Monty Graham, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, studies jellyfish. The creatures do appear to be increasing in some regions and are causing big problems, he told the science foundation. But jellyfish have lived and likely swarmed in the oceans for at least 600 million years and the population rise might just be cyclical.

"The jury is most definitely out as to whether this is a global phenomenon," he said in an email to The (Charleston) Post and Courier. "The most important thing is that jellyfish are evolutionarily programmed to respond to changes in food supply." Because food supplies change as climates change, and there's no long-term data, it's difficult to tell how long-term the swarms might be.

Webster isn't concerned about jellyfish taking over the area, at least not any more than they have in the past, he said.

He has been pulling trawl nets since 1987 and doesn't see it happening yet. His surveys have kept count of cannonball jellies since 2001, and 2001 had the largest concentration. But the 2010 numbers were close, and the spring counts this year seem to be on track for a record.

Bo Petersen at The Post and Courier contributed to this report.