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Poisoned Poissons PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dan O'Connor   
Friday, 15 April 2011

Poison in the Poissons
Ciguatera threatens to salt our seafood


Conservation and Fisheries Officer Zeke Pickering said he has fond memories of growing up in the BVI and fishing and feeding from its plentiful waters. At the time, fishermen a generation or so older than him passed down their knowledge of the trade, guiding him to areas stocked full of a healthy catch. As far back as he can remember, Pickering said he was taught about “bad fish,” or fish likely afflicted with ciguatera poisoning, a circumtropical disease caused by the ingestion of a variety of reef fish that bioaccumulate algal toxins.

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Jack fish are among hundreds of fish species capable of carrying Ciguatera. Photo Armando Jenik.
 

“I’ve been hearing about ciguatera poisoning since I was a child; it’s been here a long, long time,” he said of the disease that festers in the algae of warm, tropical and subtropical waters. “[Experienced] persons fishing in the BVI really know where not to go, so we have a tendency of not going too close to those affected areas.”
    
Ciguatoxins accumulate in the tainted algae of tropical and subtropical waters. When plant-eating fish feed on the algae, they then become a carrier of the poison, which in turn is passed on to larger carnivores up the food chain. Ciguatoxins have been found in more than 400 fish species, including groupers, snappers, jacks, mackerels, triggerfish and parrotfish. Around Tortola, fishermen know better than to eat large reef fish off the eastern or southern coast, Pickering said.  There, warm water surface temperatures provide a perfect breeding ground for the toxins.
    
Digesting a fish whose scales are infected with Ciguatera most likely doesn’t carry a death sentence; however, some isolated cases have been linked to its acute symptoms. The toxin affects some individuals more than others, and carries more than 175 possible symptoms including nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and/or diarrhoea, joint pain, reversal of temperature and could cause an irregular heartbeat.
    
Pickering said he’s been poisoned a few times—as recently as October, along with several of his co-workers.
    
Asked how the poisoning affected him, he said, “It knocked my boots off! I had a fever for a few hours—a bad, bad fever.”
    
Symptoms most commonly arise a gaping 15 minutes to 30 hours after ingestion of the toxin, according to varied reports on the subject. The frightful poison’s specifics remain a modern day enigma among the scientific community. Currently, there is no effective treatment or antidote for ciguatera poisoning. The mainstay treatment has largely remained supportive care, but some swear by local remedies they say have helped to fend off the poison’s nasty side affects—even if some medical experts chuck these claims into a placebo basket.
    
Pickering trusts bush remedies, or those concocted generations ago through the use of local flora. After having his boots knocked off and recognizing that he’d likely been poisoned by a virgin snapper he’d eaten for lunch, the Conservation and Fisheries officer resorted to a bush tea comprised largely of Buttonwood mangrove leaves and roots. Within six hours, he said he was cured. Pickering said most avid fish-eaters he knows, who have lived here for many years, have been poisoned, and most resort to similar remedies passed down through generations.
    
“We love fish here,” Pickering reiterated. “So it’s easy to get poisoned after awhile.”
    
Across the Virgin Islands, it would appear that word-of-mouth among fishermen has remained the extent of ciguatera poisoning detection—until now. In the BVI, the Department of Conservation and Fisheries is appealing to the fishing public to pick up a free ciguatera testing kit at The BVI Fishing Complex. The kit allows for fishermen to test the fish cells through a series of chemical-based tests, which, hours later, provide a result. However, the results are not guaranteed.     
    
I recently asked Tyler Smith, a coral reef researcher and professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, how the USVI is monitoring the situation. Currently, the University is working on a project funded by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Food and Drug Administration, to look specifically at environmental and human health issues associated with ciguatera fish poisoning in the USVI. The project, he said, is currently ongoing and focuses on climate modelling and environmental sampling linked to actual cases of ciguatera fish poisoning in St Thomas. They monitor seasonal fluctuations of the poison on the coral reefs on four sites on the south side of St Thomas—an area where ciguatera is most prevalent. Furthermore, they conduct interviews with patients afflicted with ciguatera poisoning and monitor the behaviour in varying cases.
    
“All of this information could, down the road, lead to better management of ciguatera fish poisoning in the USVI and ideally would lead to reduced cases,” the researcher said.
    
Continuing, he said that conventional tests and treatments still do not provide ideal results. To be safe, a fish consumer must ultimately trust his supplier, he concluded.  
    
“The best safety for consumers at the present time is to avoid fish species and areas known to contain ciguatoxins,” he said, “or rely on fishermen who have deep knowledge of ciguatera fish poisoning and are very interested in providing safe food to their customers.”

Last Updated ( Monday, 02 May 2011 )
 
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