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October 25, 2001

Sick Marlin

An expert responds to a Washington Post article that reported illnesses that were caused by marlin meat.

Q: The May 31, 1997, Washington Post carried a story about employees at the World Bank Building getting scombroid poisoning after eating blue marlin at the Marriott Corporation cafeteria there. Is it legal to sell blue marlin in the United States? Even if it is legal, marlin are sport fish, and I do not believe marlin meat should be sold. If Marriott does in fact serve billfish they will no longer receive my business. - Michael Pesteridge, Waynesboro, Pennsylvania

Q: Regarding this article in the Washington Post that reported an outbreak of scombroid poisoning caused by eating blue marlin: Is that an error on the part of the reporter? Can billfish cause scombroid poisoning? - Nigel "Jake" Buxton, Washington D.C.
A: First: It is legal to sell Pacific billfish, including blue marlin, anywhere in the United States, as long as proper paperwork accompanies the fish to prove that it did, in fact, come from the Pacific and not from the Atlantic, where billfish are protected. However, most fishermen in the continental U.S. agree that billfish should not be served in restaurants.
Promoting a legal market for billfish also encourages a black market for illegally caught billfish - a practice which has been exposed by genetic forensic analysis. Selling Atlantic billfish is illegal only in the U.S. In other parts of the world, selling marlin is both legal and common.
The Billfish Foundation and the International Game Fish Association both run campaigns to stop all restaurants from serving marlin and other billfish. Anyone who finds marlin or sailfish on a restaurant menu can send the name and address of the restaurant and its manager, with particulars of when, where and which billfish was served, to either TBF or IGFA. They will contact the business with educational information and ask them to stop.
Second: The report attributing scombroid fish poisoning to billfish is not an error. Scombroid poison is created when bacteria break down a chemical called histidine, usually concentrated in the red muscle of fish, into histamine and saurine. These chemicals, produced when dead fish are left unrefrigerated for several hours, can cause severe allergic reactions with symptoms that vary from person to person. Unlike other toxins caused by fish spoilage, scombroid poison can occur in meat that looks, tastes and smells fresh.
Scombroid poison is named for and usually associated with red-meat fish from the family Scombridae, including mackerels, tunas and wahoo. Billfish are also scombrids because they belong to the suborder Scombroidae. Also, a fish doesn't have to be a scombrid to cause scombroid poisoning. All that's necessary is the presence of histidine in a fish's muscles, which bacteria can break down into histamine. Billfish physiologist Peter Davie of New Zealand reports that marlin muscles have high concentrations of histidine-related compounds.
Scombroid poisoning and other bacterial food poisons can be avoided by promptly cleaning and refrigerating all fish.