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January 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A New Lionfish Hazard to Worry About

from the January, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

For a couple of years, conservationists have been saying that one way to reduce the population of the destructive renegade lionfish on Caribbean reefs is to spear it and eat it. Maybe not. Conservationists in St. Maarten are warning islanders not to eat lionfish after November tests found a naturally-occurring toxin in its flesh. Those findings deal a blow to the island's efforts to contain the spread of the venomous predator.

Following the lead of other Caribbean islands, St. Maarten had hoped to promote the species as batterfried or grilled entrees to slow their spread. But Tadzio Bervoets, chief of St. Maarten's Nature Foundation, said nearly half the football-sized lionfish captured in local waters were found to have a biotoxin that can lead to ciguatera poisoning, which has serious symptoms.

Ciguatera poisoning is caused by eating some subtropical and tropical fish predators, including grouper, snapper and barracuda, which live by reefs and accumulate the toxin in their flesh from eating smaller fish that graze on poisonous algae. Human symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, tingling and numbness. Most patients recover in a few days. Some never recover. The worst-case scenarios are paralysis or death.

No one has become sick from eating lionfish in St. Maarten, but more than a dozen cases of ciguatera poisoning are reported each year from people eating barracuda and jacks. St. Maarten's waters have long suffered from high levels of ciguatoxin, so Bervoets said the test results on lionfish were not a complete surprise. Nonetheless, "this means that we cannot safely promote lionfish as an edible species" in St. Maarten.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have had no official reports of illness associated with the consumption of lionfish. "But in endemic areas of ciguatera, toxins have been detected at levels exceeding FDA guidance, and could cause illness if consumed," said FDA spokesman Douglas Karas. "The Virgin Islands is one of those areas." In recent months, the U.S. agency has collected more than 186 lionfish from the waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Of these, scientists have tested 74 fish to date, with 26 percent confirmed to contain ciguatoxins at levels exceeding FDA guidance.

William Coles, chief of environmental education with the U.S. Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife, said fishermen there know well where ciguatoxins accumulate, and avoid catching fish in those areas. "So we have about the same level of concern with lionfish that we do with any other fish, but it's still a major concern."

Across the Caribbean, it remains to be seen exactly how much impact fishing and marketing of lionfish can have. For now, it's the only hope in sight. "They are definitely multiplying," said Bervoets. "That's why it's such a shame we can't eat them here."

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