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Experts: Lionfish caught in Bermuda are safe to eat

Lionfish that have invaded Bermuda's offshore waters are perfectly edible, local experts have claimed.

A recent US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study in the Caribbean has revealed a naturally occurring toxin in the flesh of the species that can lead to ciguatera poisoning.

Ciguatera poisoning is caused by digesting fish that live near reefs and have accumulated the toxin in their flesh through eating smaller fish that graze on poisonous algae.

Lionfish are known to prey predominately on juvenile fish. Of the 74 specimens tested in the recent study, 26 percent were found to have ciguatoxins at levels exceeding FDA guidance.

People who have digested infected fish usually suffer from nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and, in some cases, paralysis or death. Conservationists in St Maarten have already advised residents there not to consume lionfish.

The move has dealt a heavy blow to that island's attempts to contain the spread of the species through encouraging anglers to specifically target the candy-striped predator.

However, local senior marine resources officer Tammy Trott has assured seafood lovers that lionfish in Bermuda's waters are not harmful.

“Bermuda has low levels of the organism that is the root cause of ciguatera poisoning,” said Dr Trott. “And as far as we are aware there have been very few local incidences of ciguatoxic fish, even in species that are known for this in other places. Therefore, we do not anticipate ciguatera being a problem in Bermuda.”

Veteran diver Graham Maddocks said the rare cases of ciguatera poisoning that have been reported in Bermuda can be counted on one hand.

“As far as I understand I think there's only been two cases of people getting ciguatera in Bermuda,” he said. “And it is most likely it was from people eating imported fish.”

Mr Maddocks added that the conditions in regions where outbreaks of ciguatera poisoning are occasionally reported simply do not exist in Bermuda.

“We don't have to worry about ciguatera because our water temperatures are too cool which is really the main reason and our wind direction comes from all points of the compass,” he said. “There is no concern with ciguatera here in Bermuda.”

To date the FDA have had no official reports of illness associated with the consumption of lionfish fillets. The species is a native of the Pacific and Indian Oceans but is believed to have been accidentally let loose in the Atlantic Ocean from a fish tank in Florida in 1992.

Since then lionfish, known to produce 30,000 to 40,000 eggs every four days in some regions, have decimated fish stocks in the Caribbean and are threatening to do the same here in Bermuda unless preventive measures are stepped up.

“We are seeing them almost every single dive that we go on and it's almost like some sort of horror movie because they are gathering their forces at 200ft and coming up into the shallows to spawn,” Mr Maddocks said.

The species, which carry venom in their spines that can deliver a painful sting, was first spotted in local waters in 2000. Since then their numbers have swelled, mostly at depths of 200ft around the Island and they are gradually advancing inshore.

“This is the worst environmental disaster the Atlantic has ever faced,” Mr Maddocks added. “We cannot fall asleep at the wheel on this one because we will lose our fish stocks just like the Caribbean are losing their fish stocks if we don't act now.”

For further details on the invasion of lionfish in Bermuda's waters log onto oceansupport.org.

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Published November 28, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated November 28, 2011 at 9:14 am)

Experts: Lionfish caught in Bermuda are safe to eat

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