Australian Redback Spider Bites Rise in Osaka, Anti-Venom Low

By Adam Le

Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Redback spider bites increased to 13 in western Japan’s Osaka Prefecture this year, the most since 1995, when the poisonous arachnid was first thought to have migrated from Australia on cargo vessels.

The number of reported cases increased from nine last year, according to the prefectural government’s Web site. In June, a six-year-old boy in Osaka was given the anti-venom after being bitten, the first case of the treatment being used in Japan.

“We have low reserves of the anti-venom,” Takashi Kuramochi, a spokesman for the prefecture’s Environmental Hygiene Department, said today by telephone. “I don’t know why the number of redback bites is up.”

The redback, common in Australia and related to the black widow, delivers a bite that can cause severe pain and possibly death, according to the Australia Museum’s Web site. No deaths from the spider’s bite have been reported after Australia introduced anti-venom, the Web site says.

Called “Seakagoke-gumo” in Japanese, the spider was first found in 1995 in Takaishi in southern Osaka. It has since been sighted in 16 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Asahi newspaper reported, citing the country’s environment ministry.

No deaths from bites by redbacks, so named because of the red stripe on their abdomen, have been reported in Japan. Females of the species have bodies up to 1 centimeter in length, while males are usually 3 or 4 millimeters long.


Japanese researchers film rare baby fish 'fossil'

Tue Nov 17, 6:39 am ET

TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese marine researchers said on Tuesday they had found and successfully filmed a young coelacanth -- a rare type of fish known as "a living fossil" -- in deep water off Indonesia.

The creature was found on October 6 at a depth of 161 metres (528 feet) in Manado Bay off Sulawesi Island, where the Indonesian coelacanth was first discovered, according to the researchers.

Video footage showed the 31.5 centimetre (12.6-inch) coelacanth, coloured blue with white spots, swimming slowly among rocks on the seabed for about 20 minutes.

"As far as we know, it was the first ever video image of a living juvenile coelacanth, which is still shrouded in mystery," said Masamitsu Iwata, a researcher at Aquamarine Fukushima in Iwaki, northeast of Tokyo.

Scientists hope the discovery will shed light on the habitat and breeding habits of coelacanths.

The researchers used a remotely operated, self-propelled vehicle to film the coelacanth, which appeared to be newly born, Iwata said.

A similar-sized juvenile was once discovered in the belly of a pregnant coelacanth. It is believed that their eggs hatch inside the female and the young fish are fully formed at the time of birth.

Coelacanths are commonly regarded as having evolved little from prehistoric times and were thought to be extinct until a living specimen was discovered in 1938 off the coast of southern Africa.


Jellyfish swarm northward in warming world

By MICHAEL CASEY, AP Environmental Writer Michael Casey, Ap Environmental Writer

Mon Nov 16, 8:37 am ET

KOKONOGI, Japan – A blood-orange blob the size of a small refrigerator emerged from the dark waters, its venomous tentacles trapped in a fishing net. Within minutes, hundreds more were being hauled up, a pulsating mass crowding out the catch of mackerel and sea bass.

The fishermen leaned into the nets, grunting and grumbling as they tossed the translucent jellyfish back into the bay, giants weighing up to 200 kilograms (450 pounds), marine invaders that are putting the men's livelihoods at risk.

The venom of the Nomura, the world's largest jellyfish, a creature up to 2 meters (6 feet) in diameter, can ruin a whole day's catch by tainting or killing fish stung when ensnared with them in the maze of nets here in northwest Japan's Wakasa Bay.

"Some fishermen have just stopped fishing," said Taiichiro Hamano, 67. "When you pull in the nets and see jellyfish, you get depressed."

This year's jellyfish swarm is one of the worst he has seen, Hamano said. Once considered a rarity occurring every 40 years, they are now an almost annual occurrence along several thousand kilometers (miles) of Japanese coast, and far beyond Japan.

Scientists believe climate change — the warming of oceans — has allowed some of the almost 2,000 jellyfish species to expand their ranges, appear earlier in the year and increase overall numbers, much as warming has helped ticks, bark beetles and other pests to spread to new latitudes.

The gelatinous seaborne creatures are blamed for decimating fishing industries in the Bering and Black seas, forcing the shutdown of seaside power and desalination plants in Japan, the Middle East and Africa, and terrorizing beachgoers worldwide, the U.S. National Science Foundation says.

A 2008 foundation study cited research estimating that people are stung 500,000 times every year — sometimes multiple times — in Chesapeake Bay on the U.S. East Coast, and 20 to 40 die each year in the Philippines from jellyfish stings.

In 2007, a salmon farm in Northern Ireland lost its more than 100,000 fish to an attack by the mauve stinger, a jellyfish normally known for stinging bathers in warm Mediterranean waters. Scientists cite its migration to colder Irish seas as evidence of global warming.

Increasingly polluted waters — off China, for example — boost growth of the microscopic plankton that "jellies" feed upon, while overfishing has eliminated many of the jellyfish's predators and cut down on competitors for plankton feed.

"These increases in jellyfish should be a warning sign that our oceans are stressed and unhealthy," said Lucas Brotz, a University of British Columbia researcher.

Here on the rocky Echizen coast, amid floodlights and the roar of generators, fishermen at Kokonogi's bustling port made quick work of the day's catch — packaging glistening fish and squid in Styrofoam boxes for shipment to market.

In rain jackets and hip waders, they crowded around a visitor to tell how the jellyfish have upended a way of life in which men worked fishing trawlers on the high seas in their younger days and later eased toward retirement by joining one of the cooperatives operating nets set in the bay.

It was a good living, they said, until the jellyfish began inundating the bay in 2002, sometimes numbering 500 million, reducing fish catches by 30 percent and slashing prices by half over concerns about quality.

Two nets in Echizen burst last month during a typhoon because of the sheer weight of the jellyfish, and off the east coast jelly-filled nets capsized a 10-ton trawler as its crew tried to pull them up. The three fishermen were rescued.

"We have been getting rid of jellyfish. But no matter how hard we try, the jellyfish keep coming and coming," said Fumio Oma, whose crew is out of work after their net broke under the weight of thousands of jellyfish. "We need the government's help to get rid of the jellyfish."

The invasions cost the industry up to 30 billion yen ($332 million) a year, and tens of thousands of fishermen have sought government compensation, said scientist Shin-ichi Uye, Japan's leading expert on the problem.

Hearing fishermen's pleas, Uye, who had been studying zooplankton, became obsessed with the little-studied Nomura's jellyfish, scientifically known as Nemopilema nomurai, which at its biggest looks like a giant mushroom trailing dozens of noodle-like tentacles.

"No one knew their life cycle, where they came from, where they reproduced," said Uye, 59. "This jellyfish was like an alien."

He artificially bred Nomura's jellyfish in his Hiroshima University lab, learning about their life cycle, growth rates and feeding habits. He traveled by ferry between China to Japan this year to confirm they were riding currents to Japanese waters.

He concluded China's coastal waters offered a perfect breeding ground: Agricultural and sewage runoff are spurring plankton growth, and fish catches are declining. The waters of the Yellow Sea, meanwhile, have warmed as much as 1.7 degrees C (3 degrees F) over the past quarter-century.

"The jellyfish are becoming more and more dominant," said Uye, as he sliced off samples of dead jellyfish on the deck of an Echizen fishing boat. "Their growth rates are quite amazing."

The slight, bespectacled scientist is unafraid of controversy, having lobbied his government tirelessly to help the fishermen, and angered Chinese colleagues by arguing their government must help solve the problem, comparing it to the effects of acid rain that reaches Japan from China.

"The Chinese people say they will think about this after they get rich, but it might be too late by then," he said.

A U.S. marine scientist, Jennifer Purcell of Western Washington University, has found a correlation between warming and jellyfish on a much larger scale, in at least 11 locations, including the Mediterranean and North seas, and Chesapeake and Narragansett bays.

"It's hard to deny that there is an effect from warming," Purcell said. "There keeps coming up again and again examples of jellyfish populations being high when it's warmer." Some tropical species, on the other hand, appear to decline when water temperatures rise too high.

Even if populations explode, their numbers may be limited in the long term by other factors, including food and currents. In a paper last year, researchers concluded jellyfish numbers in the Bering Sea — which by 2000 were 40 times higher than in 1982 — declined even as temperatures have hit record highs.

"They were still well ahead of their historic averages for that region," said co-author Lorenzo Ciannelli of Oregon State University. "But clearly jellyfish populations are not merely a function of water temperature."

Addressing the surge in jellyfish blooms in most places will require long-term fixes, such as introducing fishing quotas and pollution controls, as well as capping greenhouse gas emissions to control global warming, experts said.

In the short term, governments are left with few options other than warning bathers or bailing out cash-strapped fishermen. In Japan, the government is helping finance the purchase of newly designed nets, a layered system that snares jellyfish with one kind of net, allowing fish through to be caught in another.

Some entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are trying to cash in. One Japanese company is selling giant jellyfish ice cream, and another plans a pickled plum dip with chunks of giant jellyfish. But, though a popular delicacy, jellyfish isn't likely to replace sushi or other fish dishes on Asian menus anytime soon, in view of its time-consuming processing, heavy sodium overload and unappealing image.


Associated Press writer Shino Yuasa contributed to this report from Tokyo.


Japan catches 59 whales off northern island

TOKYO – Japan said Monday it has caught 59 whales — one short of the maximum allowed by international guidelines — under a research program that critics say is a cover for commercial whaling.

The annual expedition off the port city of Kushiro ended over the weekend after harvesting 59 minke whales, the Fisheries Agency said in a statement. A maximum of 60 is allowed under the research program authorized by the International Whaling Commission.

Japan and other pro-whaling nations have been pushing for the IWC to revoke the 1986 ban on commercial hunts amid arguments over the number of whales left in the world's oceans.

Japan also annually hunts about 1,000 whales in the Antarctic Ocean and the northwest Pacific Ocean under an IWC research program.

Critics say the expeditions are a cover for commercial whaling because the harvest is sold to market for consumption.

As in previous years, the Fisheries Agency said the hunt off Hokkaido was aimed at studying the whales' feeding patterns and their effect on fish stocks. Findings will be presented at next year's meeting of the IWC.

During the 12-day expedition, whalers caught 36 male whales and 23 females, the agency said. Examination of their stomach contents found that the minkes most commonly fed on pollack, krill and anchovy in the research area, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Kushiro in the Pacific Ocean, it said.

Kushiro is 895 kilometers (556 miles) northeast of Tokyo.


'I hate whale meat,' Japan's PM confides: report

TOKYO (AFP) – Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has revealed he dislikes whale meat, a newspaper reported Saturday, in an unusual confession for the prime minister of a country that defies Western criticism of whaling.
"I hate whale meat," Hatoyama said during a meeting with his visiting Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende on Monday at the prime minister's office, the Sankei Shimbun reported.
The Netherlands is one of several anti-whaling countries that allows the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to register a vessel in the country.
The group's activists have repeatedly harassed Japanese whaling vessels in Antarctic waters. During the last hunt a Sea Shepherd vessel collided with a whaling ship, sparking allegations that the group was behaving irresponsibly.
Despite Hatoyama's reported dislike of whale meat, however, he urged Balkenende to take action against the group over its attacks on Japanese whalers in the Antarctic, government officials said.
Japan hunts whales by using a loophole in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows "lethal research" on the creatures, but makes no secret of the fact that the meat often ends up on dining tables.
Tokyo often accuses Western critics of insensitivity toward its culture and heritage.
Hatoyama's centre-left government, which took office in October, has deviated little from the pro-whaling policies adopted by the previous administration, which had traditionally close ties with farmers and fishermen.