How safe is it to eat locally harvested fish amid red tide?

Published: November 24, 2022 9:42 PM EST
Updated: November 28, 2022 10:24 AM EST

Turkey is the classic choice on Thanksgiving but, in Southwest Florida, residents are wondering if locally harvested seafood is safe to eat.

Amid red tide resulting as a consequence of Hurricane Ian, people have growing concerns about how safe it is to eat local fish.

Captain Bill Hammond is living his dream as the owner of Endless Summer Charters.

“Since I was very young. My grandfather’s always had boats. He built sailboats,” Hammond said.

“I’m not a scientist, I don’t have any data to follow. This is just intuition that if the fish are alive and thriving in that area that they’re doing pretty well,” Hammond said. “I kind of feel like if somebody really wants to eat a fish or I know they want to come and you know, come out and experience that and catch a fish, and you know, eat it but I’m pushing for catch and release. I just think that’s probably the safest thing to do right now.”

John Cassani, the Calusa waterkeeper, agrees with Captain Hammond.

“Well, your risk from consuming for example, seafood that has a brevetoxin residual may not manifest right away,” Cassani said. “It’s a type of neurotoxin, that could cause some disorientation. It irritates the eyes and nose and mucous membranes.”

As a water advocate, he fights for drinkable, fishable, swimmable water in Southwest Florida.

“The currents and the gyres move the bloom around. Different parts of the ecosystem can be exposed and this toxin it can have a residual in fish and other types of wildlife. So really something that presents the public health risks that we need to be conscious of,” Cassani said.

Lee and Collier Counties have issued alerts about red tide in the waters while the Department of Health and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agree that it’s okay to eat live fin fish that are gutted, but warn, to stay away from shellfish and distressed or dead fish.

“This is the worst possible time to create this perception by the public that it’s okay to eat local shellfish. And there’s some other issues with FWC,” Cassani said. “They’ll say well, if you fillet the fish, you can eat the fillets. But there’s at least two publications in the literature that talk about brevetoxin residuals in the flesh of recreational fish.”

Both publications found toxins moved from the fish guts and stomach to its muscle, the fillet.

Dr. Larry Brand, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami, has some concerns.

“A lot of people say it’s safe to eat a live fish. Well, if you eat one fish, you know, it’s probably not enough to it’s not going to kill you anything like that. But you wouldn’t want to eat a whole lot,” Dr. Brand said.

A study from the Florida Department of Health, mote marine laboratory, and the aquarium at Sarasota Memorial Hospital found a 40% increase in emergency room visits for gastrointestinal diagnosis during a red tide bloom period compared to the non-red tide period of time.

“So that sort of suggests that people are really eating these live fish, and they’re getting at least some brevetoxin in them,” Brand said.

The bottom line is some toxins could be in the fish you eat, but scientists agree that the dose is likely small.

However, Cassani said that if you eat seafood often, “You could be subject to more risks from brevetoxin.”

You can read the publications about brevetoxin below:

Click to access 1-s2.0-S0041010107002127-main-brevetoxin-residuals.pdf

Click to access 1-s2.0-S1568988308001571-main-brevetoxin.pdf