East coast jellyfish warning

Record numbers of deadly Portuguese Man-O-War have swarmed into the waters on Ireland’s east coast, marine scientists warned today.

Warming sea temperatures and strong winds are being blamed for the influx of the potentially lethal creatures, notorious for their eerie purplish glow and massive trailing tentacles.

Dozens of confirmed sightings over the past five months, from Ballymoney in Co Wexford to Termonfeckin in Co Louth, have sparked fears for swimmers and seaside walkers.

Dr Tom Doyle, of University College Cork’s Coastal and Marine Resources Centre, said the traditionally common Lion’s Mane jellyfish may now be overtaken by its more venomous relation.

“The Lion’s Mane is actually a colder water species, so if we continue to get warmer seas we expect it will retreat from the Irish Sea and it might be replaced by the Portuguese Man-O-War,” he said.

While the Man-O-War – known for its distinctive body that is said to resemble a 16th Century Portuguese warship – turns up on the Gulf Stream-warmed west coast from time to time, it is relatively unknown in the colder Irish Sea until now.

Dr Doyle said around 30 sightings from last August to December, including one in Rush, north Co Dublin in November, was unprecedented, with only freak sightings in previous years.

It is believed the true number of the creatures, more usually associated with the likes of Florida and the Azores, in the Irish Sea is multiples of those spotted.

They are not a true jellyfish, but a siphonophore – a single animal made up of a colony of organisms, which normally lives far out in the ocean – and can sting even when they are dead and washed up.

They can grow to the size of footballs with stinging tentacles up to several metres long.

While strong winds last year may have helped push swarms along the east coast, it is thought global warming is behind shifting trends in the marine life around the country.

In response, marine biologists, experts from the National Poisons Information Centre, GPs and consultants will come together for the first time this March to forge new guidelines on treating patients suffering from jellyfish stings.

Dr Doyle said there is a lot of confusion about folk remedies, including urinating on stings or placing rashes in hot water, which in some cases can make the pain worse.

“What we are trying to do is get the experts together and try to bring together protocols that we can distribute to the likes of county councils, lifeguards and GPs,” he said.

Last year saw the first ever reported stings from Mauve Stingers, in Galway.

Swarms of the same jellyfish wiped out more than £1m (€1.1m) worth of stock in the North’s only salmon farm, off Glenarm Bay, in 2007.

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