Experts desperate for funds to tackle issue

Gelatinous terror: An adult Morbakka box jellyfish caught in Wan Mohizan’s shrimp net off the coast of Balik Pulau. — WAN MOHIZAN WAN HUSSEIN/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: Scientists’ efforts to find solutions to the growing box jellyfish problem in Penang are being hobbled by a lack of funds.

They need RM30,000 to run a two-year study and have had little luck getting it.

“We need to trace the food source of the juveniles, remove that from the system, and that will reduce the bloom of box jellyfish, ” said Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs) director Professor Datuk Dr Aileen Tan.

She said scientists were concerned because for the first time since her team started studying the box jellyfish population in Penang’s waters in 2017, they found juveniles this year measuring as small as 2.5cm in diameter.

Prof Tan said between 2017 and 2019, her team studied jellyfish populations mostly along the northern coast of Penang island.

“We collected 3,926 jellyfish, and out of that, 33 were box jellyfish.

“Now that fishermen off Balik Pulau have been sending us baby box jellyfish, we are alarmed and need funding to find out more, ” she said, adding that the 2017 to 2019 study was funded by the state at a cost of RM10,000 while Universiti Sains Malaysia provided physical support such as boats and manpower through Cemacs.

She said the research proposal for the RM30,000 study was sent earlier to the state government but her team of scientists were still waiting.

“We haven’t stopped our work because we don’t want information gaps. We are using Cemacs operational funds and relying on fishermen to help us find box jellyfish samples.

“But this can’t go on. We need the state government to be more proactive, ” said Prof Tan.

She said another crucial part of the study was to determine the specific species of the box jellyfish found in Penang.

“We need funds to run nematocyst and molecular identification. We know the ‘box jellies’ are of the genus Morbakka, but we aren’t certain of which species. There may even be more than one species, ” she said.

Some Morbakka box jellyfish, such as Morbakka fenneri, have venom that can kill humans by causing heart failure.

One of the most venomous species in the world is the Irukandji box jellyfish, which is only the size of a thumb, and causes severe bleeding in the brain of humans.

Box jellyfish are a non-native species and scientists have long suspected they were brought here in the ballast water of cruise and cargo ships.

State environment committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said he would raise the scientists’ funding request at the state exco meeting.

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