Jellyfish help Yamagata aquarium avoid bankruptcy

Kyodo

An aquarium in Yamagata Prefecture that once faced bankruptcy has turned its fortunes around by focusing on jellyfish, exhibiting the world’s largest variety of the gelatinous aquatic creatures in captivity.

The Kamo Aquarium in Tsuruoka displays more than 35 species of jellyfish in an underground exhibition area called the Kuranetarium, a play on words incorporating the Japanese word for jellyfish, “kurage,” and planetarium.

Guinness World Records has recognized the aquarium as having the largest number of jellyfish species in its collection.

The aquarium drew in a whopping 221,000 visitors last year, the most in its history.

“(The aquarium) has such a high level of expertise that even researchers want to consult it,” said Shinichi Ue, a professor at Hiroshima University.

Osamu Shimomura, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of green fluorescent protein from a variety of jellyfish, has visited the aquarium and praised the display.

Magnifying devices for viewing are provided next to tanks of small jellyfish, and visitors are allowed to touch jellyfish during feeding time.

Many aquariums have avoided exhibiting jellyfish due to their short life spans and the difficulty of breeding them in captivity.

Given the roughly four-month average lifespan of jellyfish at the Kamo Aquarium, staff are required to catch them from the sea near the aquarium every day. They have found more than 80 species so far.

The aquarium opened in 1964, initially attracting many visitors. The numbers dropped off after new aquariums opened in neighboring prefectures. In 1997, the total fell to about 90,000, leading to rumors of closure.

The turning point came that year when its director, Tatsuo Murakami, had the idea of focusing on jellyfish after seeing a positive response from visitors to a jellyfish exhibition.

He also remembered the case of Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, which had rejuvenated its operations by changing its focus.

The staff, while making efforts to catch and breed various species of jellyfish, put their heads together to incorporate the creatures into every aspect of the aquarium, including food and souvenirs. Its Kurage Restaurant serves jellyfish, including in such popular dishes as Chinese noodles.

The aquarium is scheduled to be fully rebuilt in two years with double the exhibition space in addition to the accumulated knowhow of breeding acquired over a decade.

“We aim to make our aquarium world-class, so that people overseas will say ‘When it comes to jellyfish, the Kamo Aquarium (is the best),’ ” Murakami said.