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Appearance of sea pork on beaches not a threat, may resemble tarballs

By Staff | Nov 10, 2010

Kathleen Hoover from the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum holds an example of a tunicate — also called sea pork — which began washing up on island beaches over the weekend.

Their name may sound funny, but their appearance on island beaches has some islanders pushing the panic button.

Sea pork is back.

According to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Marine Laboratory staff, the heavy winds of this past weekend brought in a lot of pen shells to local beaches, as well as small black clumps that — at first glance — resemble tarballs.

SCCF Marine Lab Research Scientists Eric Milbrandt and Rick Bartleson identified them as tunicates, also known at sea pork. They began washing up last summer following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but the recent storms brought them in again.

“I’ve seen them washed up on the beach that were a few different colors,” said Bartleson. “We’ve seen pink and orange ones before, but the first time we saw any black ones was back in June.”

This tunicate, held by Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum employee Joyce Matthys, is comprised of hundreds of tiny sea creatures.

Bartleson said that an officer with the Sanibel Police Department brought in a few tunicate samples on Saturday, wanting to make sure they were not tarballs or oil-impacted matter.

When the sea pork washed up on Sanibel’s shoreline during the summer, tunicate expert Gretchen Lambert identified the genus as Eudistoma, based on a photograph.

According to Dr. Jose Leal, director/curator of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the unsightly sea creatures are completely harmless.

“People shouldn’t worry about touching them, although they are kind of unpleasant and gooey,” said Dr. Leal. “They aren’t going to sting you.”

Tunicates, also called sea squirts — due to their tendency to squirt water when touched — are jelly-like blobs often found in many sizes, shapes and colors. They may be frequently found in Florida waters following cold snaps or winter storms. They are actually hundreds of tiny marine creatures bound together with a rubbery membrane. They are harmless to touch.

Black colonial tunicates of the genus Eudistoma.

In addition, tunicates are known as suspension feeders. They have two openings in their body cavity: an in-current and an ex-current siphon. The in-current siphon is used to intake food and water, and the ex-current siphon expels waste and water. The tunicate’s primary food source is plankton.

“They are completely harmless,” added Dr. Leal. “It’s a shame that some people would just assume that they’re tarballs without really looking at them. It can be confusing because they are so dark and have a slick surface.”

In addition, black solitary tunicates have also been found on island beaches.

To date, there has been no evidence of oil-related matter approaching the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.