'Spotter fleet' joins war on Spanish jellyfish

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With jellyfish expected to invade Spain's seas for a second year running, Spanish authorities have asked boat owners to help spot the creatures before they come too close to shore.

The Spanish Ministry of Environment has already enlisted the help of dozens of volunteers to spot shoals of jellyfish before they reach beaches, where swimmers face painful stings.

As the tourist season approaches, the authorities have asked fishermen, professional divers, professional sailors and pleasure boat owners to help. Boat owners are expected to call the coastguard if they spot a shoal of jellyfish heading for the coastline, so they can be caught and destroyed.

The initiative will begin in areas where there are many tourists, such as the Balearic islands, the Costa del Sol, the Costa Blanca and the Costa Brava. Spain is expecting an onslaught of jellyfish this summer, partly because of over-fishing of their natural predators, such as red tuna.

Ecologists say jellyfish are attracted to coastal areas because the water is warmer close to the beach. Despite relatively high rainfall this spring, there is still less cool river water flowing into the sea compared with previous years, making a jellyfish invasion more likely.

Last summer 400 bathers were treated in one day in August for stings at a beach in Benalmadena, Malaga.

Josep Maria Gili, a professor at the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research, came up with the plan to recruit a flotilla of small boats to act as "spotters" before the jellyfish reached the shore. "For the public the jellyfish have become a yearly nuisance so we hope boat owners can raise the alarm before they get too close," he said.

In Motril, Andalucia, Jose Juan Nogales, a biologist at the Observatory of the Sea, said once the sea reached a temperature of 20C, the jellyfish were attracted to swim in towards the coastline. "We have had a period of cool seas so far with coastal temperatures only at 14C but when this rises they will come in and it will be dangerous for swimmers," he said.

Spain may also release turtles into the sea to eat the jellyfish. Jose Guirado, director of the natural studies department of the Andalucian regional government, said his colleagues were trying to increase the population of turtles on the Spanish costas so that within five to 10 years they could be used to combat the annual scourge of bathers.

They could be used on selected beaches in Andalucia for a short time to see if the project is successful. "It is not science fiction but then again it is not going to happen tomorrow," said Mr Guirado. A research project carried out by the Centre for Scientific Investigation is studying the possibility of using turtles from other parts of the world in the Mediterranean.