WNC Jellyfish Biologist Campaigns For High Seas

Jun 20, 2021

A local biologist who's been making waves for her research into jellyfish that reside in freshwater ecosystems, including some here in Western North Carolina is part of an international campaign to protect and better understand marine life in a vast stretch of salt water - most of us will never see.

UNC  Asheville Assistant Professor of Biology Rebecca Helm, PhD, spends much of her time trying to find and study the tiny freshwater jellyfish that reside in the ponds and lakes in Western North Carolina.

“Keep your eye out for little nickel size, semi clear, slightly greyish jellyfish moving around," says Helm.  "They look like jellyfish. They have that very stereotypical pulsing movement, and they seem to collect in certain areas of a pond. And that's one of the things we're hoping to figure out, you know, why do they go to these particular areas? Are they actively moving to those areas,  is the circulation of the pond sort of  

Jelly Biologist Rebecca Helm PhD, in her lab at UNC Asheville
Credit BPR

moving them around -  we want to find out.”

But lately,  It's the jelly fish and other marine life that reside in bigger bodies of water that have been on her mind, specifically an area 200 nautical miles off shores  - referred to as the high seas.

“One percent of the high seas is fully protected and conserved. And this area makes up roughly half of our planet surface and more than 90% of livable habitat on earth,” says Helm.  “And so, we have this incredible wealth of biodiversity that exists on the high seas that we as humans depend on in numerous ways.  Andthere's no mechanism in place for the vast majority of animals, including jellyfish, uh, for conservation or protection. And so, we want to see that change.”

The United Nations has been working on an agreement to address conservation and sustainability on the high seas, but Helm says they need to do more, including monitoring biodiversity. Along with some of the world's top scientists, she penned those thoughts in a letter to the UN, which was published in the Journal Science.                                                                                                                                                          

“There are so many things that we've learned about the ocean because we thought that it would never be exhausted. And then we realized that it could be. And by the time we realized that we saw fisheries crashes, we saw ecosystem degradation. So, it was really this kind of dawning awareness that the ocean is not an infinite resource. And now that we know that we can move forward with that mindset front and center and do better than we did before.”

The COVID pandemic put the high seas UN treaty talks on hold. Time this Western North Carolina jelly researcher and her colleagues are using to educate and recruit the public  to join their campaign to protect a stretch of sea most of us will never see, but that all of us depend on.

I'm Helen Chickering BPR news.

Visit Science Magazine to read the official letter penned by Helm and her colleagues calling on the United Nations to protect the high seas and learn about their campaign to protect biodiversity in the high seas here.   Take a visit to Helm's Jelly Lab at UNC-Asheville here.