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Jellyfish in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor? Here’s why people are seeing more of them.

Baltimore residents have been spotting jellyfish in the Inner Harbor in recent weeks, and are taking to social media to question whether there is a sudden population boom — and why.

According to experts, two things explain why people are seeing more jellyfish: weather and the coronavirus pandemic.

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Blue Water Baltimore waterkeeper Alice Volpitta said the increase in jellyfish is simply due to a lack of rain. Jellyfish prefer warm and salty water.

“It’s been pretty dry, and the salinity in our waterways is higher than normal,” she said. “We’re having conditions where it’s saltier, like in the middle of the Chesapeake [Bay] or the ocean, and it is causing an influx of jellies.”

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It’s not uncommon for there to be a surge of jellies in the harbor during this dry time of year, Volpitta said. However, she speculated that it’s likely more people are noticing them since the coronavirus pandemic — and all the restrictions that have come with it — has made walking the promenade an attractive, safe and socially distanced activity.

For Laura Page, an educator and skipjack captain serving the Living Classrooms Foundation, the publicized jelly sightings are an unexpectedly pleasant side effect of pandemic-imposed restrictions.

Living Classrooms' Laura Page takes a photo of an Atlantic sea nettle jellyfish after catching it in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Living Classrooms is documenting the jellyfish as well as other bay creatures for virtual education materials.
Living Classrooms' Laura Page takes a photo of an Atlantic sea nettle jellyfish after catching it in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Living Classrooms is documenting the jellyfish as well as other bay creatures for virtual education materials. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“The fact that people are out and about more, they’re noticing that phenomenon. ... It’s really nice to hear people are reacting with the environment in that way," Page said.

On Wednesday, Page was standing on the Living Classrooms pier near Fells Point tending to a water tank containing a comb jelly, so called for the “tiny hairs” or cilia sprouting from the translucent creatures, in preparation for a virtual learning experience. In years not disrupted by a pandemic, Page would take a group of students out on her boat for a lesson on the Chesapeake Bay and the health of Baltimore’s waterways.

On the other side of the harbor, National Aquarium curator Jack Cover is responsible for managing living environments and works to re-create Chesapeake Bay habitats. He said sea creatures like stingrays and jellyfish do not typically swim into Baltimore harbors or the Patapsco River, although annual drought seasons are changing their behavior.

“The end of summer to early fall is when we typically see the most in large numbers, but this varies from year to year," Cover said.

Cover also emphasized the reproduction potential of the local jellyfish. An adult female bay nettle, a type of jelly that is most easily identified by its wispy tentacles, can release 45,000 eggs daily into the harbor waters, while comb jellies may release 8,000 eggs daily. Both species have been plentiful in the Inner Harbor this year.

“They’re out there feeding. The comb jellies will eat anything in sight ... so they can go on to produce more jellyfish,” Page said.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates are working to make the harbor swimmable and fishable, a revised goal originally set for 2020. Organizations like Blue Water Baltimore are working to make the water quality improvements needed to reach the city’s goal.

However, Volpitta cautioned that the city must first fix the active sewage overflows entering the harbor’s tributaries before it can be made swimmable.

Under a federal consent decree, the city is spending more than $1 billion to improve its sewer system to reduce fecal contamination, including the scheduled completion of the city’s Headworks Project by the end of the year. That project involves constructing underground tanks to capture sewage that otherwise overflows into the Jones Falls during heavy rains.

“I’m thrilled to see more biological diversity in the harbor, and it’s really important to remember that these waterways are alive and have been,” Volpitta said. “And we should continue to make our waterways clean enough to fish, wade and paddle in.”

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