Can S.C. stomach a jellyfish industry?

Offloading jellyfish from an experimental harvest off the South Carolina coast. (photo provided by Steven Giese)

Cannonball jellyfish are bland at best. In China, where slivered, dry jellyfish are commonly served before banquets and strewn across salads, cooks don't use the cellophane-like strips without first dousing them in soy sauce or sesame oil.

Tabasco works too, said University of Georgia food safety professor Yao-Wen Huang, who in the 1980s earned the nickname "Cannonball King" for his work developing a jellyfish processing system.

According to Huang, the allure of jellyfish is its distinctive texture, suggestive of a cross between a potato chip and a stretched-out rubber band. "We call it crunchy-crispy," said Huang. "It's like when you eat chitterlings, you're not really hungry that you want food. You want that mouthfeel."

Desire for that mouthfeel is so intense in China, Japan and Thailand that an export market has cropped up in the Southeastern United States.

Processors in Florida and Georgia are now shipping millions of pounds of jellyfish to Asia, where environmental degradation and primitive processing techniques have conspired to tamp down supply.

Although the price jellyfish commands is contingent on quality, U.S. fishermen can typically sell their catch for nine or 10 cents a pound.

"As long as people want to buy it, Americans don't need to eat the stuff," Huang said.

The prospect of a new fishery is tantalizing to struggling shrimpers and entrepreneurs, including a Mount Pleasant man who's spearheading the first South Carolina foray into the jellyfish industry.

Assuming it gets the go-ahead from the Department of Health & Environmental Control and Beaufort County, Carolina Jelly Balls will begin harvesting Cannonball jellyfish in Seabrook next month.

"This new fishery can become the largest fishery in the state of South Carolina," said Carolina Jelly Balls' front man Steven Giese, who estimates that the project will create 250 to 375 new jobs.

Carolina Jelly Balls is operating under a year-old experimental permit, since there is no established jellyball fishery in South Carolina. "We've never gone out and tried to catch them," Office of Fisheries Management Director Mel Bell said. "We're not sure what they're going to run into. It may be they catch a good amount of fish. It may be they have interactions with turtles that are undesirable. We just don't know."

Bell's agency will carefully monitor the catch, but the promise of oversight doesn't assuage skeptics, who fear that the new industry poses a serious threat to sea turtles, clean water, fresh-smelling air and the state's oyster farms.

For Frank Roberts of Lady's Island Oysters, that's too high a cost for something that tastes like nothing.

"It could be devastating," Roberts said. "And when the damage is done, they're gone."

There are 1,500 species of jellyfish drifting through the Earth's seas, but only a dozen are considered edible. Cannonball jellyfish are darker and smaller than the most highly prized jellyfish, although Huang scoffed at the emphasis on size, comparing jellyfish shreds to noodles: "Very long pasta; you still have to cut it."

Jellyfish fans appreciate the relative firmness of the cannonball, which isn't found in Asia; the population is concentrated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

Shaped like squat, Super Mario Bros.-like mushrooms, cannonballs, a favorite prey of leatherback sea turtles, are very familiar to shrimpers, who have long had to contend with throngs of the single-orifice critter clogging up their nets.

An exasperated Sinkey Boone in the 1970s devised an escape hatch specifically for cannonball jellyfish, and his innovation is now better known as a turtle excluder device.

"Cannonball jellyfish were a detested item here," said Jim Page, a marine biologist with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. "They were basically a pest."

Page can speak in the past tense because Georgia 16 years ago issued its first experimental permit for jellyfishing, following Florida's lead. In the 1980s, the round jellyfish swarmed Florida waters so thickly that Florida Power & Light was forced to close one of its nuclear power plants for days so it could purge its water-intake pipes of smothering jellyfish blooms.

Keen to mitigate the problem, a marine researcher in 1993 produced the state's first test batch of jellyballs for consumption.

"Once the markets were established, we had some guys here who wanted to try it," Page said. Georgia annually issued experimental permits until 2012, when state law enshrined jellyfishing as a full-fledged fishery. Measured by volume captured, Cannonball jellyfish now constitute Georgia's third-largest fishery, behind shrimp and crabs.

Yet very few coastal residents are aware of the burgeoning jellyfish industry. "Folks locally like to eat shrimp, they like to eat crabs," Page said. "There's a lot more of those folks than folks interested in eating jellyballs."

Natural health practitioners occasionally talk up jellyballs - a Los Angeles urologist with a summer home in Georgia last year tried to "crowdfund" a study of treating vaginal pain with Cannonball jellyfish cream - but most Georgians still dismiss cannonballs as a nuisance. Their opinion is shared by a number of residents of Darien, Ga., site of the state's only processing plant.

"We've had folks who've been very vocal about the smells and unsightly nature, if you will," Page said of Golden Island International's facility. "It's no different than paper plants, which also produce some interesting smells."

Page characterized reaction to the industry as "a mixed bag."

Jellyfish are trawled, just like shrimp. Georgia requires jellyfish trawlers to install turtle exclusion devices, which fulfill their original purpose so well that most Georgia-based jellyfishers now fish in federal waters, where jellyfish aren't regulated. Trawlers can harvest between 60,000 and 100,000 pounds of jellyfish a day, but much of that tally is water weight.

After they offload their haul, "you need to reduce the water content down to 69 percent," Huang said. Although methodologies vary, the standard way of readying jellyfish for sale involves separating the umbrella from the trunk, rinsing the parts, then curing them in salt and ammonium aluminum sulfate, or alum. Huang is now studying how to reduce the alum in processed jellyfish, since "too much is not good for health."

The alum that remains in the water also is potentially troublesome because it is highly acidic. At Darien, the water is recycled multiple times, which Giese pegged as the cause of the plant's distinctive odor. He said the plant he intends to operate in Seabrook won't produce any noxious smells, because Carolina Jelly Balls' wastewater will be discharged directly into Campbell Creek.

"It's very compatible with the saltwater estuary," he said, citing a commissioned study by consultant Bob Gross, a former DHEC water quality official.

According to DHEC spokeswoman Lindsey Evans, Carolina Jelly Balls' application is still under review, so it's not yet known whether the state will approve the wastewater disposal plan.

Giese said the wastewater is far more benign than the chemically treated discharge from the chemical factory that previously occupied the PCB-contaminated site. He also said the wastewater contains a fraction of the amount of alum found in most processing plants' wastewater, but Huang, speaking generally, said wastewater concerns can't be waved away without further study.

"In the long term, for the environment, I think that's a potential problem," he said, adding that mishandling of waste products doomed the crab industry.

Roberts, of Lady's Island Oysters, farms oysters 2,400 feet away from the site's outflow pipe. Some of those end up at The Ordinary and McCrady's in Charleston. Roberts worries that the alum, salt and jellyfish residue will sully the water in unforeseen ways.

"No one's done research into the long-term effects of alum," he said. "What are the potential negative effects on the ecosystem, and those of us who depend on a clean river to earn a living? It's clean water and we'd like to keep it clean."

Giese, 55, got his seafood industry start with the notion to air-freight live shrimp. Although he grew up in Charleston, he spent the better part of the last two decades in the Florida shrimp business, a $30 million run that ended with him declaring bankruptcy in 2007.

"I'm a very good businessman," Giese said, blaming his financial problems on a failed scheme to cultivate indigenous shrimp, "a fisherman who tried to hurt (my son) by hurting me" and family issues that culminated in Giese divorcing his wife of 25 years.

The latest dalliance with jellyfish isn't the first instance of Giese looking for new markets. In 2011 he tried to set up an import-export seafood company in Haiti, but said he lost $49,000 on the endeavor. The next year he started shopping around South Carolina for a jellyfish-processing site.

Officially, Giese is the project coordinator; Suchi Anthony Su, who operates a jellyfish plant in Mexico, is the owner and primary investor. Sinkey Boone's sons, Howell and Greg, have been retained to coach South Carolina shrimpers on the jellyfish catching techniques they've practiced in Georgia.

"I could have done this in Florida," Giese said. "But it was better to come back home. It puts me back on the path of being successful and retiring here in South Carolina."

Carolina Jelly Balls initially settled on a site in Port Royal, but the deal was upended last spring when the town council learned of Giese's bankruptcy. He said he supplied the town manager with requested documents showing the town wouldn't have any liability if the venture flopped, but he ultimately decided to take his pastor's advice and search for another site.

Despite past issues in his life, Giese attributes the jellyfish project's success to his faith. "Attending the Church at LifePark of Mount Pleasant changed my life forever," said Giese, who is launching a foundation to support young families and single mothers.

Carolina Jelly Balls purchased the former Lobeco Plant in October. Once DHEC finishes evaluating its application, the grand opening of the Seabrook facility will hinge on approval by Beaufort County's zoning board, which is required to solicit public comment.

"Undoubtedly a lot of concern will be expressed about the impact on the receiving waters from the effluent from the processing plant, and the amount of ground water removed from the well to wash and process the jellyfish," planning director Tony Criscitiello said. Giese said the company won't have to dig any additional wells.

Rather than wait for the plant to start operating, the company last week filed a permit to harvest Cannonballs near St. Helena.

Pursuant to the experimental permit, Carolina Jelly Balls' trawlers will be outfitted with TEDs and limit their tow times to 30 minutes. But Giese is more apt to talk about what he can do than what he can't. He envisions Carolina Jelly Balls becoming a full-service seafood processor, handling soft shell crabs, oysters, whelks and shrimp by 2017. His financial projections show South Carolina's shrimpers reaping an additional $14 million in revenue by 2018.

"The shrimp fishery loves this because they hate jellyballs," said Bell, the Office of Fisheries Management director. "The shrimpers would be very supportive: It's a niche fishery, but it gives trawlers something to do."

This year, the company plans to send out eight to 10 boats during the peak spring and fall seasons. The experimental permit doesn't impose any catch limits by weight, which Dustin Cranor, spokesman for the ocean advocacy and conservation organization Oceana, believes is incompatible with South Carolina's stated goal of ensuring "a continued food source for leatherbacks by protecting the cannonball jellyfish from commercial over harvest."

"It looks like they aren't doing anything to ensure that catch levels are appropriate," Cranor said.

The company's plans call for harvesting about a million pounds of jellyfish a week. Although nearly all of the jellyfish is earmarked for export, Giese is already nursing dreams of stoking domestic demand for his product.

Musing about the possibilities, he suggested, "We just might one day see our South Carolina Cannonball jellyfish as a featured delicacy by one of our famous Lowcountry chefs."