updated 6/12/2007 12:39:59 PM ET 2007-06-12T16:39:59

What do tourists and jellyfish have in common? They both love warm water and proliferate along Spanish beaches in the summer.

And that's bad news for Spain, the world's top tourist destination after France.

The government has approved a plan to create an armada of recreational boaters to spot the stinging blobs and summon help.

"The important thing is that anybody who comes to the beaches here in Spain should know that a serious plan is under way to keep this from being a problem," said Josep-Maria Gili, the biologist coordinating the project.

Spain's Mediterranean waters are home to half a dozen kinds of jellyfish. Some areas have seen an exponential rise in jellyfish populations, called a bloom. Last year the proliferation was so bad in parts of Spain's Catalonia, Valencia and Almeria regions, some beaches had to be closed for a few days.

Overfishing, warming
Scientists blame the problem in part on overfishing, which has sapped stocks of natural jellyfish predators like tuna and turtles, and of small fish that compete with jellyfish to feed on plankton.

Another factor is global warming: jellyfish are drifting close to beaches more frequently as decreasing rainfall causes a drop in cooler, freshwater runoff from rivers — a natural barrier for the creatures, said Josep-Maria Gili, a marine biologist coordinating the project.

"The fact that jellyfish make it to the coast is a sign the sea is sending us about how badly we treat it," said Gili, who works at the Barcelona-based Institute of Sea Sciences, affiliated with Spain's top research body, the Superior Council for Scientific Research.

"It is like a symptom of how we have changed the sea more than we thought," he said in a telephone interview.

The project targets specific areas including Catalonia in the northeast and the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean, then spreads to other regions, Environment Minister Cristina Narbona said Friday.

It calls for recruiting volunteers — recreational boaters and anglers — to watch out for schools of jellyfish and call a toll-free number to authorities on land when they see a large group floating close to a beach.

Municipal authorities would then dispatch staff in boats to scoop up the jellyfish and dispose of them properly by letting them dry out. A freshly dead jellyfish can still sting, and so can a severed tentacle.

"You can't just throw them in a garbage can," Gili said.

Posse volunteers sought
Joaquin Such, director of a marina in the resort town of Altea in the Valencia region, said he has been contacted to try to round up a posse of jelly fish surveillance skippers.

Such said the plan is a good idea but doubts he will get more than 15 takers.

"In summer this is a real sacrifice. You go out boating but if you see jellyfish you have to go through the whole procedure," Such said from Altea.

Ricardo Aguilar, a biologist with the ecological group Oceana, said the plan is like "using a mosquito net against malaria."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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