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Managing Ciguatera fish poisoning requires broad partnerships

The Ciguatera toxin is most commonly found in large tropical reef fish, such as snapper. Photo credit: NOAA

Ciguatera  is increasingly attracting greater public attention and discussion among the general public and within the community of food safety experts. As the geographical instances of ciguatera fish poisoning expand, discussion is turning to the implications this may have on the diets and nutrition of the affected regions and on international fish trade.

Earlier this week, FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, jointly with the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department,  organized an interagency meeting with  the World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms (UNESCO-IOC),  and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  The topic on the day-long agenda was how to tackle concerns about ciguatera fish poisoning. All experts agreed the only effective way to address the concern is to bring together international experts on fisheries, public health, researchers, and climate change, since the issue touches upon all of these areas.

Ciguatera fish poisoning is caused by ingesting fish that have been contaminated by the ciguatera toxin. The toxin is most commonly found in large tropical reef fish, including, among others, barracuda, grouper, and red snapper.

The ciguatera toxin forms in some harmful algal species, which tend to extend their geographic distribution due to the effects of climate change. Both herbivorous and carnivorous fish can become toxic, because small fish ingest the toxin and then are eaten by larger fish. Although the toxin is harmless to the fish that ingest it, it is dangerous to humans who the consume the fish. Ciguatera is not easily detectable: it is not visible in the fish that is caught, nor does it change the taste of the prepared fish.

How the ciguatera toxin enters into the food chain from the harmful algae blooms and on through fish, until it is consumed by humans
The forms distributed to doctors through the health agency in Tahiti. This data helps improve early identification of outbreaks and feeds into data collection crucial for global monitoring
FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Director Lahsen Ababouch welcomes participants to the interagency workshop

Cases of ciguatera fish poisoning are most prevalent in the Caribbean and Oceana, causing specific concerns to Small Island Developing States that rely on fish for their own food security and nutritional needs, in addition to their economic development and livelihoods. NOAA produced a new study in the journal Ecological Modeling, which forecasts an increase in ciguatera poisoning in the Gulf of Mexico and the US Southeast Atlantic coast, with predicted rising global ocean temperatures due to climate change. These changes can lead to larger and longer blooms of the harmful algae and a migration of affected species further north.

Opening the meeting, FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Director Lahsen Ababouch welcomed the joint work of various international agencies to develop a coordinated plan. “I am certain that by combining our competencies, we can deliver better services to our member countries.  We are also involving our colleagues from the Codex Committee on Fish and Fishery Products in this important discussion that also touches on important aspects of food safety.”

Yasmin Bottein, Research Scientist with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Environment Laboratories in Monaco speaks about IAEA’s toxicological assessments both in the laboratory and in affected areas

Yasmin Bottein, Research Scientist with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Environment Laboratories in Monaco spoke with the group about the need to have a good monitoring system in place, and methods for sampling and analyzing fish. Her laboratory, under its work in peaceful uses for nuclear technology, has been conducting toxicological assessments both in the laboratory and in the field. “We have been concentrating heavily on capacity building in the affected regions, and we’ve learned though experience that it is crucial to bring in health professionals at an early stage. This also helps us to better target our research and analysis. In Tahiti, we have distributed forms through the health department, and physicians are trained to identify the symptoms and to report this information to the health authorities. This early detection and strong data collection has been useful in the region. We would like to see this model adopted in other affected regions.”

Robert Magnien, Director at US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Chair of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms stressed “It’s important to focus attention of researchers on the areas most affected. Those might be the precise areas with the least capacity to confront the issue. This is why we want to work closely in partnership to bring all the expertise around the table and better support affected countries and regions to roll out appropriate technologies that will help them to better face this challenge.”

The interagency meeting on Ciguatera resulted in important agreement on next steps for coordinating this work across agencies and in collaboration with member states. By working with a large array of experts and building capacity in affected countries and regions, participants felt countries would be better able to face the challenges posed by ciguatera fish poisoning. 

Robert Magnien, Chair of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms stresses the need for the fisheries, research, health, climate change and food safety communities to work together on Ciguatera

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