Georgia shrimpers harvest lowly jellyfish for Asian market

Sunday, March 16, 2003

DARIEN, Ga. -- The 225-pound bucket emerges from the belly of Greg Boone's shrimp boat and tips onto the dock -- SPLAT-SPLAT-SPLAT -- raining a ripe-smelling pile of pulpy blobs that resemble rubber mushrooms.

This catch isn't for Boone's local customers. They wouldn't eat this stuff anyhow. Boone has never dared taste it himself.

But the 40,000 pounds of cannonball jellyfish being scooped from the hold of his shrimp boat will be food for somebody's table, most likely in China, Japan or Thailand.

With Georgia's shrimp industry falling on hard times, a few shrimpers have turned to the lowly jellyfish to make ends meet. The "jellyballs" they once discarded from their nets as trash are now valued for export to Asian countries that consider jellyfish a delicacy.

"It's almost like a joke -- you don't think it's real when people buy these darn jellyballs," says Boone, whose family has been in the seafood business for three generations. "I can't believe people would want to eat these things."

This is Boone's first season harvesting jellyfish for an exporter in South Carolina. He's paid 6 cents-per-pound -- roughly $2,400 for this catch. With shrimp prices as low as $3 per pound, jellyfish now make up about a third of Boone's business.

Sign of desperation

American jellyfish exporters sprung up in Southern states in the 1990s, but never gained a large foothold. Sales are such a tiny niche that they aren't tracked by either the National Fisheries Institute, the largest U.S. seafood trade association, or government regulators.

In Georgia, only six fishermen are licensed to trawl for jellyfish.

To George Marra, director of the Georgia Shrimp Association, catching jellyfish is nothing less than a sign of desperation. Shrimpers would turn up their noses at jellyfish if it wasn't for a flood of cheap, imported shrimp and a five-year drought that took a bite out of the overall catch, he says.

"Most guys don't want to touch it, and the price is 7 cents a pound. Imagine how desperate," Marra says. "If the shrimp prices were still at a level where we could make a living, there's no way we would do jellyballs."

The jellyfish-as-junk mentality has made Yao-Wen Huang, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, the butt of jokes for years.

But he knew from growing up in Taiwan that jellyfish were considered a powerful health food because of their collagen-rich tissues -- believed to help alleviate arthritis, gout and high blood pressure.

The American cannonballs' helmet-like, 7-inch caps were meatier than most Asian species, and they lack stinger-laced tentacles to frighten fishermen. The trick was speeding the traditional 45-day process of salting and drying jellyfish to make production profitable for U.S. businesses.

Texture is crucial to Asian jellyfish aficionados, Huang says, because the sea creatures haven't got much taste. Usually shredded and served cold on a salad, jellyfish should be crisp like a carrot.

Huang found a way to process cannonball jellyfish in a week, fast enough to make harvesting profitable for American fishermen, and by 1993 started winning converts in Florida.

"At the beginning, people were laughing. They were always teasing me -- 'You're the Cannonball King!"' he says. "But once they knew there was a market there, they came back and said, 'How do we make some money?"'

But jellyfish didn't turn out to be the gelatinous gold rush some expected.

Like Huang on the Atlantic Coast, Jack Rudloe set out in the mid-1990s to teach fishermen along Florida's Gulf Coast to harvest the cannonballs. Now, Rudloe, a writer and operator of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Fla., describes his jellyfish years as "a sad tale of bitterness with some triumphs in there as well."

Rudloe quit after about six years because he found processing hundreds of thousands of pounds too labor intensive.

"Had jellyfish been a gold market and people made all kinds of money, it would have taken off," Rudloe says. "The bottom line is, it's not cost effective. And I just got to feeling personally bad about killing large numbers of jellyfish."

In 1969, Sinkey Boone and his fellow shrimpers were also tired of catching jellyfish -- too many tangled in his nets meant less shrimp.

An invention that keeps out sea turtles also blocked the cannonballs from fouling the catch.

Now, Boone, 66, watches his 44-year-old son, Greg Boone, shovel ice onto another 1,600-pound tub of jellyballs. A dozen of the plastic crates are ready to be loaded onto a truck. And the boat's still being unloaded.

The elder Boone shakes his head. Yesterday's trash, it seems, is today's truffle.

"That's quite a thing. It don't look like it'd be edible," he muses. "But I guess you can just about eat anything nowadays."

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