Tue, Apr 03, 2007 - Page 16 News List

The revenge of the fishes

Despite their gastronomic cache, eating reef fish may cost you more than you are prepared to pay


Filipino fish vendors wait for customers at the Villa Arevalo public market, the same wet market that sold a Barracuda fish that sickened 32 people last August in Iloilo city in central Philippines.


Bowls of piping hot barracuda soup were the much-anticipated treat when the Roa family gathered for a casual and relaxing Sunday meal.

Within hours, all six fell deathly ill. So did two dozen others from the same neighborhood. Some complained of body-wide numbness.

Others had weakness in their legs. Several couldn't speak or even open their mouths.

"I was scared. I really thought I was going to die," said Dabby Roa, 21, a student who suffered numbness in his head, tingling in his hands and had trouble breathing.

What Roa and the others suffered that night last August was ciguatera poisoning, a rarely fatal but growing menace from eating exotic fish. All had bought portions of the same barracuda from a local vendor.

Experts estimate that up to 50,000 people worldwide suffer ciguatera poisoning each year, with more than 90 percent of cases unreported. Scientists say the risks are getting worse, because of damage that pollution and global warming are inflicting on the coral reefs where many fish species feed.

Dozens of popular fish types, including grouper and barracuda, live near reefs. They accumulate the toxic chemical in their bodies from eating smaller fish that graze on the poisonous algae. When oceans are warmed by the greenhouse effect and fouled by toxic runoff, coral reefs are damaged and poison algae thrives, scientists say.

"Worldwide, we have a much bigger problem with toxins from algae in seafood than we had 20 or 30 years ago," said Donald Anderson, director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

"We have more toxins, more species of algae producing the toxins and more areas affected around the world," he said.

Although risk of ciguatera has soared recently, the phenomenon is ancient. Fish poisoning shows up in Homer's Odyssey. Alexander the Great forbade his armies to eat fish for fear of being stricken, according to University of Hawaii professor Yoshitsugi Hokama.

Captain James Cook and his crew probably suffered ciguatera poisoning in 1774 after eating fish near Vanuatu in the South Pacific, according to crew journals and correspondence studied by Michael Doherty of the Swedish Epilepsy Center in Seattle, writing in the scientific review Neurology. Cook recorded that they "were seized with an extraordinary weakness in all our limbs attended with a numbness or sensation like ... that ... caused by exposing one's hands or feet to a fire after having been pinched much by frost."

Ciguatera has long been known in the South Pacific, the Caribbean and warmer areas of the Indian Ocean. Some South Pacific islanders use dogs to test fish before they eat.

But in the past decade, it has spread through Asia, Europe and the US, where more restaurants are serving reef fish, prized for their fresh taste and exotic cachet.

Hong Kong, which imports much of its seafood, went from fewer than 10 cases annually in the 1980s to a few hundred now.

Still, Hong Kong diners pay a premium for the risky fish. Rare species like the Napoleon wrasse fetch nearly US$100 a kilogram. The fish are increasingly shipped live from Southeast Asia and as far away as the South Pacific, raising concerns from the World Conservation Union that many species, especially groupers, could be fished out of existence.

Professor Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of Hong Kong, predicted that high demand and cash-hungry fishermen mean that "ciguatoxic fish entering markets around the world is going to increase."

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