July 4, 2007

Jellyfish-Proof Swimming Enclosure Business Enjoys Growth

By Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press, N.J.

Jul. 3--When David Nolte got his family a 32-foot Catalina sailboat, he knew they'd need one more piece of equipment to enjoy Chesapeake Bay. A few years later, he bought the company that makes it.

Now an alarming northward advance of stinging sea nettle jellyfish is bringing the Nettle Net Boat Pool company new business from New Jersey. Boaters and waterfront homeowners along Barnegat Bay, the Navesink River and other Shore waterways are a growth market for the 30-year-old Severna Park, Md., business that makes jellyfish-proof swimming enclosures starting at $480.

"I was at the Annapolis boat show, and the first several people who bought pools were from New Jersey. I thought, what's up with this? And they told me there was a big issue emerging with jellyfish in the Barnegat Bay region," Nolte said.

Inventor David Dianich developed the Nettle Net in the 1970s, after he moved into a waterfront house on Chesapeake Bay and learned his two daughters couldn't swim off the dock because of stinging jellyfish.

Over the years, he built a small regional business, selling inflatable rings with fine-mesh netting that allow Chesapeake boaters to jump in without fear of getting stung. Nolte, 48, got to know Dianich after buying one of his nets, and about a year ago he bought the company.

After researching news stories and scientific material about jellyfish problems in Barnegat Bay and other estuaries, Nolte set up display booths at both the Philadelphia and Atlantic City boat shows.

"The response has been wonderful," he said. "I got a call this morning from a woman on the Navesink River. She says the jellyfish have shown up there, and now she's interested."

"It's a good time to be a jellyfish," Nolte added. "Overfishing of predators, warming water, eutrophication, they all create favorable conditions for jellyfish."

Among East Coast recreational boaters, the sea nettle evokes the kind of dread that yellowjacket wasps or greenhead horseflies hold for picnickers and beach goers on land. Nothing can ruin a day in the water faster.

In their adult form, sea nettles trail tentacles loaded with stinging cells, called nematocysts, used to stun small fish and other prey. When the animals bump into people, the stingers fire, making painful small wounds like insect stings. In Chesapeake Bay, sea nettles clog some waters so thickly that no one dares swim unprotected during the stifling heat of a Maryland summer.

So when Barnegat Bay boaters first reported seeing strange new medusa shapes a few years ago, alarms went off among ecologists. The sea nettles' growing foothold in the Metedeconk River and northern bay is a symptom of eutrophication, an environmental change caused by pollution that drives out native fish and plant species, says Michael Kennish, a Rutgers University research professor who directs Barnegat Bay studies at the Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.

"Once the jellyfish are established in an estuary, you can't just get rid of them," Kennish said. The animals' reproductive cycle allows them to propagate under favorable conditions, so the only real hope is to control widespread air pollution and storm water runoff that's driving the eutrophication process, he says.

Nolte declined to reveal sales, but said they are already several thousand Nettle Nets out on the bays. The company gets some orders from Long Island and North Carolina, but now it looks as if New Jersey is the emerging market, he said.

Among New Jersey buyers, about one in four say they intend to use their nets mostly at residential docks, Nolte said; the Barnegat bayshore is lined with thousands of waterfront homes.

"This is a lot cheaper than putting in a swimming pool," Nolte observed.

For dockside use, he advises buyers to cover their dock pilings with cushions of old fire hose or carpeting, to protect the net's inflatable ring from sharp barnacles or splinters.

The company builds its nets in three sizes of 8 feet, 12 feet and 20 feet in diameter. All are designed to be deployed off boat transoms, so swimmers can step off the stern and jump right in. In deep water, the nets extend down to 8 feet below the surface.

A circular flotation ring, built of heavy-duty coated fabric used in aircraft life vests, is inflated with a foot pump that comes with the package.

The netting material is 1/16-inch mesh, fine enough to keep out jellyfish but able to allow water to pass through without ballooning the net to one side. The smooth polyester mesh is finished so jellyfish tentacles won't cling to it. That's an important point, the company tells potential customers, for it lets boaters quickly retrieve and stow the net without shaking bits of jellyfish and their stinging nematocysts all over the deck.

The 8-foot diameter model sells for $480 and accommodates two or three people, while the 12-foot model at $660 fits a family or four to six adults, according to company literature. The biggest model, 20 feet, which sells for $1,360, creates a 314-square-foot area in which it's possible to swim.


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