Should I eat Lionfish? Beware of Ciguatera poisoning!


lionfishAs you all know I saw my first humungous lionfish a few weeks ago in the 2nd reef line off Lauderdale by the sea.  Enormous and at least 6-9 inch body.

This is how my thoughts go.  I see lionfish, do more research, look up recipes, look at spears and poles to stab them with for purchase, look for Lionfish Derbies and so on…The brain never stops.

Many of my friends have a lot of fun to going out and shooting lionfish and then cooking them up.  Every diver that I talk to tell’s themselves and anyone listening that they are doing something good to keep back the invasion of the reef dwelling alien fish. But now people have to come and tell us–for our own good–that eating lionfish might be unhealthy! Very unhealthy. Ciguatera is a nasty disorder that you definitely do not want to get.  I checked and didn;t find any reposted cases as of yet but, I have heard of cases from people who’ve eaten grouper taken from Florida reefs.  Now I wonder how that goes with grouper foraging on lionfish meat?

What is Ciguatera poisoning?  It is caused by naturally occurring toxins, called ciguatoxins, which are produced by microscopic plants – gambierdiscus toxicus – that live on seaweed and other surfaces within coral reef communities. When fish eat seaweed or algae they consume the organisms and the ciguatoxins build up in the fish’s flesh. The toxin is stored in the fishes’ body and not excreted – so it builds up as it goes up the food chain. The bigger fish eat the little fish and the toxin gets passed on until it is consumed by humans. Predators at the top of the food chain – like barracuda and lionfish – can end up with large amounts of the toxin in their flesh.   Think like mercury in Tuna.  No test can be done to determine if the fish is poisoned and cooking and preparation have no affect on the toxin. The toxin is unrelated to the venom found in the spines of the Lionfish.
Ciguatoxin is the same toxin which is present in the flesh of Barracudas, large Jacks and large Snapper, which are traditionally also not eaten if caught in our waters.

Reef fish can acquire a buildup of ciguatoxins through their natural diet. If consumed by humans, they can have toxic effects such as nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, slowed heart rate, itching, burning, numbness and tingling, weakness and muscle or joint pain. Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning can appear from within hours to even a few days after consuming fish. Should you experience symptoms that might indicate ciguatera after consuming lionfish, seek a medical evaluation.

The University of Florida/IFAS St. Lucie County Cooperative Extension has received an update from Florida Sea Grant that shows that lionfish harvested in Florida’s waterways might contain toxins which cause ciguatera.The Sea Grant statement to Extension Agents says:

the finding of the FDA is that ‘of 194 fish tested, 42 percent showed detectable levels of ciguatoxin and 26 percent were above the FDA’s illness threshold of 0.1 parts per billion.’

Despite the fact that NOAA has an ongoing program to teach people how to catch and cook lionfish, given this new information, under no circumstances should any person affiliated with Florida Sea Grant advocate consuming these fish, regardless of the location from which they are taken.

If someone tells you it is OK to eat lionfish, tell them that the latest FDA science indicates that there is a significant risk, and it is recommended that they DO NOT eat them.

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About daniellesdives

diving enthusiast
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4 Responses to Should I eat Lionfish? Beware of Ciguatera poisoning!

  1. George M. Allman says:

    Hello,
    I photographed a beautiful, dead fish on the beach at Pompano, south of the fishing pier about June 1. My memory was that it was a lionfish. I was correct. Until I looked-it-up, I didn’t know anything about them. GMA

  2. Kristian R says:

    I want to clarify something for some of the other readers here who may not do their own research on the topic. I do not deny that the FDA listed the 2 species of invasive lionfish as species that may carry dangerous levels of ciguatoxin. However, that list also includes “certain species of barracuda, grouper, scamp, amberjack, snapper, hind, hogfish, jobfish, pompano, jacks and trevally, wrasse, mackerel, tang, moray eels and parrotfish” according to the Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance, which is issued by the FDA. That being said, the title of your article seems to only focus on lionfish (you only briefly mention barracudas, jacks, snappers) as being a culprit of ciguatera poisoning when there are plenty of other species that people order at restaurants every day without batting an eye. In addition, Ken Gall, a seafood technology specialist for the New York Sea Grant at Cornell University, recently stated that ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) occurrence is sporadic in reef areas, so you have to rely on local knowledge of areas that have a history of problems. As of January 2013, the FDA has found no occurrences of CFP associated with consuming lionfish. Again, I agree that there is a risk, but if you’re going to advocate against the consumption of lionfish because of CFP then you should be advocating against the consumption of a lot of other popular species as well.

    • thanks for the info. I am not advocating eating or not eating just opening my mind to all research. My title refers to lionfish as if you read my other articles I had recently seen a huge one and it peaked my curiosity. I was also contemplating buying a spear to kill them and if I wanted to eat them of not. I have posted this so everyone could see your feedback

  3. Ed McCaskill says:

    Good article.
    I have recently harvested and consumed Lionfish. We speared them along the natural ledges and artificial reefs of North East Florida. The largest fish was 16.5 inches and fed my wife and I. I have harvested over 100 lionfish with the average size exceeding 10 inches. One of the larger fish managed to spear my finger in the nuckle . Actually I speared myself with its spine while depositing a large fish into the collection bucket. It feels like you smashed your finger with a hammer. I took two Beadryl, and sprayed it with jellyfish sting relief. The pain was severe but bearable and only lasted for an hour.
    I attended a seminar sponsored by a professor whose name I cannot recall from the University of Florida. The seminar was held at Whitney lab in Marineland Florida. He said he had consumed over 700 pounds during his years of research with no problems. The research lab and base was located in Little Cayman which I would assume has more of the tropical contributors of ciguatera than anywhere else like Northeast Florida for example.
    The FDA is the FDA. Significant risk is a very alarming statement. I have my own opinion.

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