NOAA officials in the Florida Keys and elsewhere were quick to downplay a report last week that the Food and Drug Administration doesn't support NOAA's Eat Lionfish campaign due to concerns about the invasive reef dweller being a source of the food-borne illness ciguatera.
"We know that harvesting lionfish is one of the best ways to control them locally," said James Morris, an ecologist at NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Beaufort, N.C.
The lionfish hails from the South Pacific and was first spotted off the Keys in early 2009. Like other areas it had previously infiltrated in the Caribbean and along the south Atlantic Coast, the fish has thrived here. It is a prodigious breeder and faces little threat from local predators. In the meantime, the lionfish has shown an ability to overwhelm its new prey.
In an effort to deal with their burgeoning population, NOAA coupled with the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation in 2010 to introduce the Eat Lionfish campaign. The campaign, which operates on the assumption that turning lionfish into a commodity is the best way to control its population, extols lionfish as a "delicious fish."
Here in the Keys, the campaign has begun to take hold. Several restaurants serve lionfish, mainly during the lobster season, when trappers are most likely to bring up the fish as by-catch.
But at the FDA's Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory in Dauphin Island, Ala., news of the campaign two summers ago prompted the agency's lead ciguatera researcher, Alison Robertson, to study lionfish for the presence of the toxin that causes the illness, Robertson told MSNBC last week. Ciguatoxin is found in reef finfish, including grouper, snapper, barracuda and jacks. Humans who contract ciguatera experience a broad range of symptoms, including vertigo, muscle aches, headaches and hallucinations, some of which can linger for years.
The FDA declined to release the results of Robertson's study last week, saying that none of the data has been published. But Robertson told MSNBC that of the 194 lionfish that were tested, 42 percent had detectable levels of ciguatoxin and 26 percent had levels above the FDA's acceptable limit of 0.1 parts per billion.
"We certainly don't promote any campaign like that since we have found levels above our guidance," Robertson told MSNBC about the Eat Lionfish campaign.
"It certainly wouldn't be our recommendation at this time."
But later in the week, FDA spokesman Curtis Allen sought to walk the agency back from Robertson's remarks. Robertson, he said, was not misquoted, but the statements weren't put in the proper context. In a subsequent statement, Allen explained that none of the lionfish tested in the study came from the Keys. But he did say that the Keys, along with several Caribbean islands, are known ciguatera zones.
"[O]ther predatory reef fish in that area are toxic and have caused illness consistently over the last few decades," he wrote.
According to the Monroe County Health Department, 11 cases of ciguatera were reported in the Keys last year, most from the consumption of one barracuda. The other cases came from fish caught outside the Keys. None were from lionfish.
Morris, the NOAA ecologist, as well as Karrie Carnes, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which is a part of NOAA, indicated last week that they have no special concern about the safety of lionfish. They stressed that ciguatoxin is present in a variety of reef fish.
"The sanctuary sees this as a fish issue rather than a lionfish issue, and there is no reason to believe that lionfish caught in the Keys have any higher presence of ciguatera than Keys grouper and Keys snapper," Carnes said. "Nobody bats an eye ordering snapper or grouper."