Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP) is a common form of seafood poisoning, affecting tens of thousands of people worldwide. Potentially at risk are people who consume reef dwelling fish such as black grouper, amberjack, snapper, barracuda, hogfish and triggerfish.
One of the reasons so many are afflicted with CFP is that there are no simple screening methods, which hinder efforts to monitor for outbreaks and protect people from toxic fish. NOAA recently awarded a team of scientists headed by Dr. Michael Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University a $4 million dollar grant to investigate the conditions that lead to CFP outbreaks and create a model which will lead towards a better predictive and preventive capability.
Kate Spinner recently reported in the Herald Tribune how ciguatera gets into seafood. She explained that corals die from natural and man made environmental stress. The increased growth of seaweed on dead coral provides a habitat for Gambierdiscus toxicus algae. Fish eat the algae on the plants and then themselves are eaten by carnivorous fish, concentrating the toxins up the food chain. When people consume fish which have accumulated the toxins they are at risk of CFP.
The common symptoms of CFP include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting followed by neurological symptoms. Headaches, muscle aches, and numbness are common; other symptoms may include strange sensations, such as the feeling of loose teeth, confusion between hot and cold temperatures, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Symptoms may persist for weeks or months.
Ciguatoxins are heat stable and therefore persist in fish tissue even after being cooked. Experts recommend that we never eat barracuda or predatory reef fish if it is over 30 pounds. If you are eating out make sure the restaurant has not substituted another fish in place of what you ordered.
As we eat and import more seafood, risk of exposure to Ciguatera Fish Poisoning is increasing and the algae that causes CFP is showing up in more places in the Gulf of Mexico. This poses not only a health risk but an economic problem to our local communities that rely on seafood.