FGCU researchers warn of ciguatera, a dangerous toxin found in reef fish

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Researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University are warning seafood lovers about toxins in our water that can make them sick.

“Everybody should be aware of it,” FGCU Marine Science Professor Dr. Mike Parsons said.

He’s talking about ciguatera, which he told WINK News is, “a form of seafood poisoning.”

Dr. Parsons has been studying toxins in our oceans for years. He and graduate students from FGCU are getting to the bottom of a mystery in Florida’s marine food chain.

“I love seafood,” Nicholas Culligan said, who is one of the graduate students taking on the task at Tennessee Reef just off the Florida Keys. “I want to make sure that everything I’m eating doesn’t send me home writhing in pain.”

Dr. Parsons explained in Florida, about a thousand people each year get sick after eating certain kinds of reef fish. Their research in the Keys is part of a $5.9 million grant project paid for by the National Institutes of Health.

“One of the biggest issues is we do not know if and when a fish is going to be toxic,” Dr. Parsons said.

As part of their mission, they dive about 25 feet below the surface collecting fish that they will take back to the lab and analyze for the toxins. Ciguatera affects about 400 species of fish, but the big three you need to look out for are barracuda, grouper and snapper.

While Dr. Parsons said most fish are fine, it’s still good to be aware of the potential danger. Right now, they’re working to figure out how they can predict which fish will make you sick and which won’t.

The toxic algae those fish consume lives on sea grass here around the Keys. That’s why they collect samples of underwater plant life for analysis, too. They’re working in the Keys, because the majority of these toxins are found here. They want to nail down how it spreads in the food chain as it slowly progresses toward the Gulf of Mexico and southwest Florida’s fisheries.

“We’re trying to understand the system better,” Dr. Parsons said, “to see if there are times of year or under certain conditions when we’d expect to see more toxins and toxic fish.”

Ciguatera symptoms usually start as late as 24 hours after ingesting the fish. They include food poisoning symptoms like nausea, abdominal pain and vertigo. It can also affect your nerves by making cold things feel scalding hot and vice versa.

“You’ll drink a glass of ice water,” Dr. Parsons said. “It’ll feel like scalding hot water. You have to convince yourself you didn’t burn your throat.”

It can affect your health for a few days or up to 20 years in extreme cases. There’s no cure. Dr. Parsons told WINK News that hospitals in the Keys regularly see patients for the illness.

That’s why he and his students are working to solve this mystery.

“If people start mysteriously getting sick,” Nicholas Culligan said, “they might not come back to the Keys or south Florida in general.”

That’s a problem they’re trying to prevent, since Florida depends on fishing so much for its economy.

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