From August through December every year, the waters off Panacea, Fla., turn into a white-and-purple polka-dot sea as millions of jellyfish the size of soccer balls pulsate along this stretch of Gulf of Mexico coast.
To commercial fishermen such as Leo Lovel of Panacea, and to every swimmer who has ever been stung by one, the cannonball jellyfish-- Stomolophus meleagris-- are, like jellyfish everywhere, a painful, irritating nuisance.
But to Florida aquaculture officials, the cannonballs are potential moneymakers.
Dried jellyfish are a seasonal delicacy in Southeast Asia. Malaysia alone has 30 processing plants serving a $30-million industry. Last year Japan spent $35 million on imported jellyfish; South Korea, $11 million. China exported $20 million worth.
The Asians eat species of the tentacled, gelatinous sea creatures that are plentiful in waters close to home.
Why, the Floridians ask, shouldn't the cannonballs, which scientists consider one of the most unusual of about 200 jellyfish species, compete as food with the Asian varieties?
Cannonballs have a weaker sting than most other medusae-- the scientific name for jellyfish--making them easier for fishermen to handle. They swim faster than others. They are found between Chesapeake Bay and Venezuela and are most plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico.
Most important, their promoters say, dried cannonballs have a crunchy quality unmatched by other species. Florida officials are counting on this distinction to woo Asian importers.
"We have a world-class jellyfish here," boasted Lovel.
To make a pitch to the huge Asian market, and at the same time help revive Florida's beleaguered fishing industry, state officials had a ton of the umbrella-like cannonballs hauled in last summer and processed in a laboratory.
The results--200 pounds of crunchy, flat pancakes--were shipped to Japan, China and Malaysia and to a few New York-based exporters.
No orders came through immediately. But last October a wholesale grocer in Japan paid $7 a pound for 1,000 pounds of dried cannonballs and indicated he would place a multi-ton order later, said Jack Rudloe, who runs a nonprofit marine laboratory in Panacea.
Rudloe was one of the first in the Florida Panhandle fishing community to recognize a potential commercial value in the cannonballs. His interest in turning them into a marketable product took him to Malaysia, where he studied jellyfish processing techniques.
He is seeking financial support to develop a two-step "jellyfish washing machine" that will speed up the cumbersome drying process.
Florida seafood officials, meanwhile, have requested a $50,000 to $75,000 grant to pursue jellyfish processing on a larger scale. Legislative approval is expected this spring.
Although Rudloe and other entrepreneurs hope eventually to turn a profit on cannonball sales, Leo Lovel and most other Gulf Coast fishermen simply want the jellyfish out of their territory. The large medusae clog and weight down shrimp nets, making it difficult to drag in and sort the catch.
"Shrimpers are forced to find other areas to work, but there may not be any shrimp in those areas," said Charles C. Thomas, head of Florida's Division of Seafood and Aquaculture.
On the other side of the world, however, this bane of Gulf Coast fishermen graces any proper banquet table.
"It has attained a very high status in Asian society," said Samson Hsia, a food technologist in Foster City, Calif. "It's a must at Chinese banquets as part of the first dish."
The clear, noodle-like strips, laced with sesame oil and piled next to sea cucumbers and turnips, are a far cry from the passive bluish, brownish or purplish watery blobs that plague beach goers worldwide.
To reach this edible state, jellyfish are cured for a couple of weeks with salt and alum, which draw out most of the moisture. The dried disks are soaked in fresh water, then cut into strips. Just before serving, the strips are dipped in boiling water for a minute or two.
The final product is "one nonstop proteinate Dorito," said Rudloe.
Properly prepared jellyfish has a mild fishy flavor and an elastic, crunchy texture something like that of an edible rubber band.
Besides bolstering the profits of local fishermen, U.S. food professionals believe a domestic jellyfish industry would appeal to millions of diet-conscious Americans.
"We spend so much money on cutting down the calories of certain foods, and jellyfish already comes with no calories," said Peggy Hsieh, a food sciences professor at Alabama's Auburn University. It's also high in protein, calcium and iron, she said.
Despite these benefits and a cost comparable to chicken, many food experts doubt that Americans will ever accept jellyfish as enthusiastically as they have accepted such previously unfamiliar foods as tofu and sushi.
"The Chinese eat a lot of things only for their texture," said Samson Hsia. "This is not true of Americans. There's a textural barrier that most Americans won't overcome."