A leading doctor is urging folks in Nassau and the Family Islands to stop eating barracuda, warning that a moment’s sweet taste can turn into a year-long sour battle to recover.
“Every summer we see an increase in large fish consumption with more people going boating and fishing,” said Dr. Arlington Lightbourne, President of Bahamas Wellness Health Systems with three clinics in Eleuthera and one in New Providence. “This year the boating scene has been particularly active with people looking for things to do when many places are off limits and events cancelled due to COVID restrictions.”
According to Dr. Lightbourne, barracuda is the most common source in this region of a neurotoxin called ciguatera, though any large fish, including grouper, can contain it.
“At best, the symptoms can involve extreme discomfort, a day or two of gastrointestinal pain with vomiting, diarrhea, a low heart rate, low blood pressure, but if the symptoms are not treated right away, they can lead to far worse, long-lasting conditions,” he said.
“We’ve had patients who had to be hospitalized and end up in ICU (Intensive Care Unit) because their blood pressure is so low it becomes life-threatening. You can suffer from neurological impact, experiencing dizziness, numbness, loss of feeling in the fingertips, itchiness in feet. It can literally change your life and these symptoms can last up to six months or even a year.”
Because the ciguatera toxin is cumulative, you can take in a little bit and not notice it, but as you digest more and more, the risk of ciguatera poisoning increases. When it is severe, the patient is instructed not to eat any seafood for six months and, in worst cases, up to a year as even small remnants in the system re-active and flare up, causing reactions akin to the painful gastrointestinal disorders and frightening heart rate and blood pressure drops.
“For any medical professional who has treated these cases, and I would guess that every physician in The Bahamas has treated at least one, the irony is not lost that people fear barracuda when they swim and yet digest them as if there were nothing to fear when that is exactly when they should run as fast and as far away as they can,” said Dr. Lightbourne. “Please, enjoy the summer and the fishing, but do yourself a huge favour and be kind to yourself. Leave the large fish like barracuda or any normally mid-size fish like grouper that is extraordinarily large alone. The longer the fish has been in the sea, the greater the chances are that it has some form of toxicity.