CIGUATERA IN RAROTONGA LAGOON POINTS TO RUNOFF

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By Cameron Scott

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (The Cook Islands Herald, April 1) – When it comes to eating fish taken from inside Rarotonga’s lagoon, it’s very much a case of "eat at your own risk."

[PIR editor’s note: Rarotonga is the largest island in the Cook Islands and where the national capital is situated.]

If you’re lucky, you won’t get fish poisoning. If you’re not, you could get seriously ill.

That’s the word from the acting Secretary of the Ministry of Marine Resources, Josh Mitchell, who says while the ministry can get an idea of which parts of the lagoon are affected by fish poisoning from its regular algae monitoring program, some predatory fish, like trevally, travel rapidly in and out of affected areas – making it impossible to tell where the sickness could strike next.

And he says while the ministry is doing its best to track outbreaks of fish poisoning (ciguatera poisoning), other ministries need to make more of an effort to prevent the environmental problems on land which ultimately cause the problems in the lagoon.

[PIR editor’s note: According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, ciguatera poisoning is caused by the consumption of subtropical and tropical marine finfish, which have accumulated naturally occurring toxins originating from algae species. Initial signs of poisoning occur within six hours after consumption of toxic fish and include numbness and tingling, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ciguatera is commonly associated with soil runoff caused by shoreline development projects.]

Mitchell was commenting on a case reported to the Cook Islands Herald on Saturday where three members of an Arorangi family became seriously ill early last week after eating trevally taken from the lagoon at Black Rock.

The family, including a three year old, was admitted to hospital after suffering acute symptoms of fish poisoning. A woman is understood to have become unconscious and had to be put on a drip.

Island resident Tom Wichman says he spoke to the victims after their ordeal and they claimed they had no idea that it wasn’t safe to eat trevally taken from the Black Rock area.

"They said there were other people in hospital with fish poisoning, but Public Health isn’t doing anything to tell people about it. They said that someone should be responsible for informing people about where it is safe to take fish, and what kinds of fish cause the poisoning. It’s very serious because it affects the brain, the heart the nervous system and your blood pressure," said Wichman.

Mitchell couldn’t agree more that the public needs to be kept more informed.

However he points out that in spite of the ministry’s monthly monitoring program, which keeps an eye on the levels of algae that host the dinoflagallates organism - which in turn causes ciguatera - it’s impossible to say whether or not any part of the lagoon is entirely free of fish poisoning.

He says the monitoring program is a test of the environment – not of the fish in the lagoon.

"All we can do is look at the concentrations of dinoflagellates in the algae. If they are very high, we know the risk is there."

Mitchell says other ministries like Health and Environment Services urgently need to take action to prevent the problems that cause fishing poisoning in the first place.

"It has got worse as land use on the island has changed, because there’s a definite correlation between outbreaks of dinoflagellates and changes in land use."

Run-off from pig farming, agriculture, poorly constructed septic tanks and soil disturbances such as construction sites, is the biggest problem, he says.

"Even people clearing land up on the back road cause a problem because silt and soil runs into the lagoon and disables the coral enough to admit ciguatera."

Marine Resources is responsible for the health of the lagoon but has no control over how people use the land, he says.

"The problem is, other government organizations aren’t willing to do their bit. They’re willing to let us to the hard work of testing, but they’re not enforcing the rules that protect the environment. There is a need to reinforce the need for proper septic treatment systems, but that isn’t being done. Some people are being allowed to ignore the rules, but they have to apply to everyone."

The problems in the lagoon are reversible, Mitchell says, but until all of the responsible agencies accept their responsibilities, the situation can only get worse.

"Ciguatera poisoning is just part of a larger problem. The Cook Islands has to decide whether it wants to protect the environment, or pay lip service to it and just sit back and wait and see what happens."

April 10, 2006

The Cook Islands Herald: http://www.ciherald.co.ck/Times.htm

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