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Last updated: 13 December, 2010 - Published 13:27 GMT
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Fish poisoning 'link' to warming
Grouper fish
Reef fish, like the grouper, have been known to carry ciguatoxins
Scientists working on a study of climate change in the US Virgin Islands are pointing to a possible link between warmer ocean temperatures and fish poisoning.

The findings come from a study on ciguatera fish poisoning funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A three-year cooperative agreement supported by the CDC's National Centre for Environmental Health was formed to find out if climate change led to higher instances of the debilitating disease caused by the consumption of contaminated reef fish.

Preliminary findings were presented at a seminar held at the University of the Virgin Islands on St Thomas.

Although recorded cases of fish poisoning to a hospital on St Thomas dropped between 2009 - when the study began - and 2010, researchers say there is evidence of a cause and effect scenario.

Surprising findings

"The increases in temperatures that are witnessed in the Caribbean Sea may have an effect," said Glenn Morris, principal investigator of the project and director of the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute.

"It is important that we understand the potential impact of climate change and rising sea surface temperature on the occurrence of this disease."

Facts about fish poisoning
People who have ciguatera may experience nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes.
They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.
Ciguatera has no cure.
Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who have ciguatera can be treated for their symptoms.
St Thomas researcher Tyler Smith said some surprising information has emerged in the first year findings.

Researchers found that some fish were more likely to contract ciguatera than others; that some reefs were more likely to grow types of algae that are associated with the disease.

They also found that the introduction of cooler water conveyed by ocean currents had a modulating effect, as did storm activity.

Mr Smith said this observation was of particular interest, given the very warm ocean temperatures seen over the summer.

"There has been a suggestion that in warm years your see a higher incidence of ciguatera in the Pacific," he said.

Lionfish concern

Researchers say ciguatera found in the Pacific Ocean is ten times as toxic as that found in the Caribbean and people suffering from fish poisoning there get much sicker as a result.

Participants in the CDC-funded study say they are working to understand as much as they can about the nature of the toxin itself, so they can better identify different strains and leading to more effective treatments.

There was also a curious observation about the lionfish, an invasive species that has caused concern throughout the region.

With its poisonous spines and ravenous appetite for smaller reef fish, some Caribbean governments have been promoting the idea of controlling lionfish populations by eating them. Some have even published recipe books.

But Dr. Alison Robertson with the US Food and Drug Administration points to preliminary studies which suggest the spiny menace also carries a ciguatera risk.

"Given the current interest in the lionfish we decided to take a look at those," she said.

The initial findings are not conclusive, she said but it leads researchers in the direction of a broader study, seeking lionfish samples from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

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