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NCCOS Research Project

Ciguatera Fish Poisoning: Identifying Toxic Species

Primary Contact(s): wayne.litaker@noaa.gov
This project began in January 2001 and is Ongoing

Ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) is the most common, non-bacterial, seafood illness. The condition is caused by toxins from the microalga Gambierdiscus, and can lead to diarrhea, paralysis, and, in worst cases, death. Currently, there is no easy method for measuring CFP toxins. We are evaluating screening methods for CFP cells, if these cells can be used to identify regions most at risk, and if a CFP warning system can be developed.

Why We Care
Ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) causes more human illness than all other harmful algal bloom species combined. It is a persistent problem in tropical areas around the globe, with 50–500,000 cases per year. More than 400 fish species are known to become toxic. In U.S. waters, CFP occurs in Hawaii, Guam, southern Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and occasionally in the Gulf of Mexico extending around the southeast U.S. coast as far north as North Carolina. Tainted fish shipped from tropical regions can also cause poisoning anywhere in the continental U.S. For these reasons, CFP represents a major health risk and is a major impediment to the development of fisheries resources in many regions of the world.

What We Did
We need to better understand the prevalence of CFP and develop an accurate, cost-effective monitoring system. In many parts of the world, monitoring for toxic algae provides an early warning to help protect marine resources and public health. Until recently, such an approach was impossible for CFP, because it was difficult to distinguish one species from another and to determine which ones were primarily responsible for producing toxins. We have led the effort to identify Gambierdiscus species. This is crucial for determining which species can best predict when CFP is likely to occur. To document the need for detection and surveillance, we have surveyed the incidence of CFP across the Caribbean, observing the highest occurrence of CFP between 1996 and 2006.

Next Steps 
Our goal is to develop and implement practical, affordable, and sustainable strategies for managing the risk of CFP. Future work will involve using our newly acquired information about CFP-causing organisms to test various monitoring methods. We will determine which method proves most effective at predicting CFP occurrence and transfer this technology to managers and researchers in tropical countries around the world.

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources, in direct support of NOS priorities, offices, and customers, and to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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