Scientists are racing to find a natural solution to ciguatera, a non-curable disease from eating contaminated fish that affects half a million people every year
Text Lim Jun Xi
Love seafood? The chances of you getting poisoned by a fish dinner have now fallen significantly, thanks to a team of marine toxin researchers from Hong Kong.
Scientists from the Southeast Asia’s first ciguatoxin research team, the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture and Shenzhen Toxic Algae Research (SEA STAR), have found new ways to reduce the spread of Gambierdiscus, a toxic algae that when eaten by fish (and subsequently humans), severely poisons them through a disease known as ciguatera.
In recent years, rising ocean temperatures from global warming have increased the severity and frequency of algae blooms, allowing Gambierdiscus to thrive in previously inhospitable regions such as the South China Sea, and the resultant ciguatera spike has affected coastal communities like Hong Kong and the Philippines.
“Over 500,000 people are affected by ciguatera fish poisoning each year, and such a trend will continue to rise since coral reef food fish are regarded as a delicacy in Asia,” said Dr Chan Lai Leo, founder of SEA STAR and associate director at the City University of Hong Kong’s State Key Laboratory in Marine Pollution.
Humans who eat contaminated fish contract ciguatera and suffer symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, and an irregular heartbeat. While death is rare, the illness can last for years and relapse after recovery. There are also no readily available field tests for the disease, and contaminated fish usually appear healthy.
Since its creation in 2013, SEA STAR researchers have led numerous initiatives against ciguatera in the region, such as workshops in Hong Kong and Mainland China training local scientists and government agencies to identify and handle ciguatera occurrences. The research has also generated massive interest and sponsorship from companies in Hong Kong.
Besides ciguatoxin research, SEA STAR is also experimenting with monoculture fish rafts (floating fish farms along the shore) to repurpose waste from the fish and reuse it in the farms, thereby reducing the chances of Gambierdiscus algae blooms.
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