The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) are assuring divers and diners that locally caught lionfish are safe to eat, despite recent reports of the toxin that causes ciguatera found in lionfish caught off the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
Reports of ciguatoxin off St. Maarten have made international headlines in recent weeks, and raised concerns about consumption of the fish. The concerns have surfaced after an aggressive yearlong campaign by REEF and the sanctuary urging people to catch and eat lionfish, as their numbers have exploded in the Keys.
Lionfish, a non-native species commonly found in Indo-Pacific waters, has few predators in the Caribbean and is disrupting the marine ecosystem.
Like organizations throughout the Caribbean, the two local agencies have extolled lionfish as a delicacy. There is no closed season or size and bag limit on spiny invader.
Sanctuary and REEF officials note, as do news reports, that St. Maarten's waters have long suffered from high levels of ciguatoxin, which has affected jacks, snapper and grouper.
"We are still promoting local consumption of lionfish," said sanctuary spokeswoman Karrie Carnes. "There is no reason to think that there are higher levels of this toxin in lionfish than in native reef fish in the Keys."
REEF Special Projects Director Lad Atkins echoed Carnes' sentiments, noting that there have been no reports of ciguatoxin in lionfish in the Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands, Belize, Jamaica, the Bahamas and other areas of the Caribbean where they are found.
"Any time you have a ciguatoxin hot spot, a lot of fish can be at risk, not just lionfish," Atkins said.
Tadzio Bervoets, chief of St. Maarten's Nature Foundation, said nearly half of the football-sized lionfish captured in local waters were found to have a biotoxin that can lead to ciguatera poisoning, according to an Associated Press report.
Ciguatera poisoning is caused by eating fish -- usually predators such as grouper, snapper and barracuda -- that live by reefs and accumulate toxins through their diet. The toxin builds up in the predator fish's flesh from eating smaller fish that graze on poisonous algae.
People who have eaten infected fish experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tingling and numbness. Most patients recover in a few days, but more severe case can result in paralysis and even death.
No one has become sick from eating lionfish in St. Maarten, but the territory typically has more than a dozen cases of ciguatera poisoning each year from people eating barracuda and jacks, according to The Associated Press.
Because of lionfish's growing popularity as a food fish, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is conducting studies of the species to determine if it has prevalence of ciguatoxin or any other toxins, Atkins and Carnes said.