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Toxic Pufferfish Invade Eastern Mediterranean, Killing People and Irking Fisherman

By Douglas Main
Oct 31, 2011 7:08 PMApr 18, 2023 5:55 PM


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In the Eastern Mediterranean, the pufferfish has arrived. And nobody's too happy about it. The fish, also known as the silverstripe blaasop or Lagocephalus sceleratus, was first confirmed in Turkey in 2003 and has been spreading throughout the area. The problem with this unassuming fellow is that it contains tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that can be deadly to humans and for which there is no known antidote. Consumption of the fish has killed at least 7 people in Lebanon in the past few years, according to The Daily Star, and likely affected many more. A 2008 study found that 13 Israeli patients who ate the blaasop had to receive emergency medical attention at the hospital, where they didn't recover for four days. Besides being poisonous the pufferfish is also strong and has a sharp beak that allows it to cut through fishermen's nets. The fish is native to the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and lives in the Red Sea, from which it likely migrated through the Suez Canal. As of 2005, there were as many as 745 exotic species in the Mediterranean, many of which likely arrived via the same route. Despite being poisonous, pufferfish is eaten in Japan and known as fugu, although it must be prepared by specially trained chefs to remove the toxin-containing components. A recent meeting of fisheries officials in Lebanon suggested hiring a consultant to train chefs to prepare the fish, although Lebanon's head of Fishery and Wildlife is not too keen on the idea. Officials are considering ideas to control the fish's spread, such as paying fisherman to catch it. In the meantime, fishermen stab the puffer and throw it back into the water. Tetrodotoxin is extremely potent and can cause death by paralysis. It works by blocking sodium channels, which are necessary for the contraction of muscles like the diaphragm that control breathing. Symptoms usually appear within 30 minutes, although consuming a pufferfish once killed somebody within 17 minutes. If you make it for more than 24 hours, you are likely to survive the ordeal, although you can remain in a state of near-death for days. For this reason tetrodotoxin is sometimes called "zombie powder," and according to Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis is a prime ingredient in Haitian voodoo use to turn people into zombies. [Via Lebanon's The Daily Star]

Image credit: Johnny Jensen 

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