Is pink-jellyfish bloom in Palawan linked to COVID-19 lockdown? Scientist explains

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 10 2020 07:39 PM | Updated as of Apr 11 2020 01:31 PM

MANILA — Like translucent tomatoes, thousands of pink jellyfish could be seen gently bobbing up and down the clear waters off the coast of El Nido town, Palawan, in a video posted on social media.

The video, taken by Alimar Amor on March 23, was posted on Twitter by marine biologist Sheldon Rey Boco and has since received more than 400,000 views.

“Tomato jellyfish, Crambione cf. mastigophora, didn’t get the memo about #Social_Distancing in El Nido, Southern Philippines,” Boco posted on Twitter with a photo of the jellyfish taken by Sue Muller Hacking.

Boco, who has been studying jellyfish since 2012 and was a co-founder of the Philippine Jellyfish Stings Project, said the jellyfish were seen by some colleagues who were in El Nido.

The video and photo of the bright jellyfish have since been shared by online news sites and linked to the COVID-19 lockdown, which has also affected Palawan.

Interest in the phenomenon grew amid reports of improving air quality during the lockdown in countries like the Philippines and China.

But Boco, a marine biologist and a PhD candidate at Griffith University in Austrialia, said there is no evidence yet that shows how the lockdown and the “jellyfish blooms” or population growth were connected.

“There is current and sensationalized misconception in the media, and even in scientific literature, that climate change, and other human stressors, are causing global increase of the size and frequency of jellyfish blooms. This misconception needs to be corrected,” Boco told ABS-CBN News. 

“We need more experiments and field data to be able to make exact explanations about this phenomenon.”

Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda also told ABS-CBN News that “there’s always a season for the bloom because of the presence of different nutrients (in the water).”

He said the increase in jellyfish population often occurs during the summer, similar to the seasonal algal bloom in Boracay.

Boco also said the increase in jellyfish population is probably not because locals stopped harvesting them.

“Limited data do not show that they are being harvested as a fisheries commodity in Palawan,” Boco said of the species commonly called tomato jellyfish.

Boco explained that jellyfish blooms or the sudden increase in their population can be abrupt.

He said that while it looks “spectacular” it can be “devastating” for fishermen as the jellyfish can clog nets, reducing the quality of their catch.

Boco said it’s likely that the baby jellyfish started appearing in February but were seen in Palawan in March “because of wind, current and tidal conditions.”

Boco said it’s possible that tourism activities such as boating and recreational fishing “can possibly alter water circulation and distribution of zooplankton food for the jellyfish, thereby potentially changing the distribution of jellyfish medusae.”

However, he added: “The absence of field data and formal scientific reports on the behavior and distribution of the jellyfish species and potential effects of human presence on the coastal area makes it difficult to even speculate about whether the presence of tourists and fishers on the area affect the jellyfish.”

The Philippine Jellyfish Stings Project, which Boco co-founded with his research student Christine Capidos “aims to record the distribution or occurrence of jellyfish, and to gather anecdotal reports or documentation of benefits and incidence of sting by jellyfish in the archipelago.” 

Their public group on Facebook features photos and posts of jellyfish sightings in the country.