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Grant Helps Researchers Studying Toxin Stalking Florida Reef Fish

Bottom-feeding fish, like this hogfish, are known vectors for ciguatera.
User "dicegirlsnapz" via Flickr Creative Commons
Bottom-feeding fish, like this hogfish, are known vectors for ciguatera.

An international team of researchers headed by a Florida Gulf Coast University professor is trying to understand the most common marine toxin in the world. 


The five-year study funded by NOAA’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms Program is investigating the conditions that lead to outbreaks of ciguatoxin.


Dr. Mike Parsons with FGCU's CiguaHAB research projectsaid on WGCU's Gulf Coast Live the toxin is produced by single celled algae. They tend to grow on seaweeds in tropical environments like coral reefs. It gets into the food chain when fish eat the algae, and bigger fish eat those fish, and so on.


Parsons said it doesn’t take much to make a person sick with ciguatera fish poisoning, with the toxin affecting humans in doses measured in parts per billion. Early symptoms are gastrointestinal and neurological. They can last hours to months. And they can flare up weeks or even years later. Parsons said ciguatera poisoning can even be fatal.


“Even though there’s no cure for it you can treat some of the symptoms," Parsons said. "So for example one of the symptoms of a more severe case of ciguatera fish poisoning would be a drop in blood pressure, a drop in your heart rate. And so in some cases you’ll have to go into intensive care for that so you would need to go to the hospital in that case.”


No matter how or how long you cook the fish, you can’t kill the toxin.


Parsons said if people really want fresh fish from a tropical or reef environment avoid dangerous species such as predators like barracuda.


Black grouper, hog fish, amberjack and snapper are also susceptible. The FDA follows outbreaks of the toxin on its web site.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Matthew Smith is a reporter and producer of WGCU’s Gulf Coast Live.