Toxic Fish Fears Rising in the Pacific

New research finds the risk of fish poisoning in island of the Pacific has increased 60 percent.

big aj

big aj

Amberjack this size can be completely safe to eat in some regions but a high ciguatera fish-poisoning risk in others.Capt. Antonio Amaral

In 2011, I wrote an in-depth feature about the perils of ciguatera, which happens to be the most common form of non-bacterial fish poisoning around the world.

A toxin found in certain warm-water plankton builds up in large reef-dwelling fish, so when eaten by humans, the odorless and tasteless toxin (which can’t be neutralized by freezing or cooking) causes terribly debilitating and painful symptoms to nervous and digestive systems that may last for months.

New research by a team of international marine scientists has discovered a 60-percent increase in the incidence of ciguatera poisoning in Pacific Island nations.

According to a report in, researchers estimate that as many as a half-million people over the past 35 years could have suffered from the disease, "making it a much more serious public health issue than previously thought."

For my part, I’ll keep eating fish and enjoying it. But I’ll also continue to use caution in what fish I eat from areas where ciguatera is known to occur. In those areas (which include not only much of the Indo-Pacific but the Caribbean as well), I’ll avoid dining on large reef predators such as barracuda and amberjack as well as many species of grouper and even cubera and large mutton snapper.

On the other hand, in some regions, apparently no large fish harbor ciguatera. As far as I know, it’s not an issue in the eastern Pacific. Thus in Panama recently, I had no worries eating a meal from a very large cubera snapper.

This new report simply reinforces the essential point I made last year: Statistically the risk of contracting this nasty disease is low, but it can be minimized still further by avoiding larger reef predators.