Holy Mackerel – It's Ciguatera
Fish is a healthy part of any diet and South Florida
has many wonderful varieties of fresh fish. However, some varieties of
reef or bottom-dwelling fish such as barracuda, snapper, grouper,
amberjack and king mackerel can cause a severe illness known as
ciguatera fish poisoning (or ciguatera).
People who have ciguatera may experience abdominal pain, nausea,
vomiting, diarrhea, joint and muscle pain, weakness in the arms or legs,
tingling of the lips, tongue, fingers or toes, blurred vision and
hot/cold temperature reversal (cold things feel hot and hot things feel
Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks, but intermittent reoccurrence
of symptoms can appear over a period of months or years. People who have
ciguatera should seek medical treatment for their symptoms. The earlier
treatment is begun, the more likely it is to be successful.
Ciguatera fish poisoning is caused by eating fish contaminated with a
toxin known as ciguatoxin. Ciguatoxin is a common marine toxin found in
tropical waters off the Florida coast. Reef fish (any fish living in
warm tropical waters) eat algae growing on underwater reefs that contain
toxins which in turn cause the fish to become toxic. The effect is
magnified through the food chain so that large predatory fish become the
most toxic. The toxin is not inactivated by cooking or
freezing the fish before consumption. The fish looks, smells and
tastes perfectly fine.
A safe approach to avoid ciguatera fish poisoning would be to avoid
consumption of large predatory reef fish. This includes snapper,
grouper, amberjack or mackerel greater than 5 pounds. Consumption of all
barracuda, no matter the size, should be avoided. Yellowtail snapper
and dolphin (mahi-mahi) are safe fish to eat at any size in the South
Florida and Caribbean areas.
So don’t give up eating fresh fish, one of the pleasures of South
Florida living. Use caution in keeping what you catch and in buying
large reef fish from markets and fishermen. Ask restaurants about the
source and original size of the snapper, grouper or amberjack reef fish
they serve. Avoid the big fish – you’ll be glad you did. Ciguatera fish
poisoning could end your fun!
For More Information:
From the Palm Beach County Health Dept.
Epidemiology & Disease Control.