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October 26, 2001

Poisonous Peril

Many marine creatures use poison as a natural defense against predators, sometimes that means you.

Q: While fishing in Florida Bay, I caught a gafftopsail catfish about 15 inches long. The problem came when I tried to unhook it and jabbed my hand with the dorsal spine. Within minutes I felt sweaty and dizzy and in a lot of pain. Fortunately, the wound wasn't deep and bled a lot. The dizziness passed in about an hour, but the wound was sore and inflamed for days. My guide told me this marine catfish's spines were poisonous, but how poisonous are they? And what is the best treatment? - Alfred Wentz, Tampa, Florida

A: Your experience is not uncommon. Sea catfishes, along with several other marine fishes, have venomous spines that can cause symptoms ranging from stinging, burning and throbbing to intense pain, redness and swelling, numbness, tissue sloughing, falling blood pressure, rapid pulse, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sweating, muscular paralysis, delirium and death - depending on the species and the amount of venom received (according to Soucie's Field Guide Of Fishing Facts).
Other species with venomous spines include horn sharks, rabbitfish, spiny dogfish, stargazers, surgeonfishes, toadfishes, stingrays and - the most toxic found in North American waters - lionfish and scorpionfishes. The venomous spines may be located anywhere: In dorsal, pectoral, anal or pelvic fins, or near the tail. In some of these species, poison spines have a venom gland located at the base, so care must also be taken in cleaning any to be eaten.
First aid treatment starts by immediately flushing the wound with clean water. Allow the wound to bleed and/or try to suck out the poison. If possible, soak the wound in very hot water (which neutralizes some marine toxins) or apply hot compresses for 30 to 60 minutes. Apply a sterile antiseptic dressing and get medical care.