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Stabroek News

published: Thursday | April 6, 2006

Shelly-Ann Thompson, Freelance Writer

Early last week there were reports of 19 persons from Enfield, St. Mary being poisoned and subsequently hospitalised at the Annotto Bay Hospital in the parish, allegedly from eating barracuda fish. Food decided to explore this notorious fish and explain why it is poisonous.

THE BARRACUDA, a large tropical marine fish, is one that you will either find irresistible to eat or that you will avoid. Consumers usually have no understanding of when a barracuda is best for consumption nor do they know if, when eaten, it has any toxins harmful to the human body.

Barracudas, known as cuda, sea pike and giant sea pike, have long been acknowledged as a poisonous or unfavourable fish for consumption. They may become impregnated with a toxic substance that produces a form of poisoning known as ciguatera.


Marine biologist, Dayne Buddo, says that humans are at great risk if barracudas are consumed. "Humans have been known to get ciguatera poisoning from the consumption of barracudas," he told Food.

Ciguatera poisoning occurs from the consumption of cigua toxins. These toxins are produced by a variety of microscopic algae, but the one most notably responsible for ciguatera is gambierdiscus toxins.

"Barracudas consume a wide variety of fish and most of these are herbivorous fish (fish that consume plants). Some of these fish are filter-feeders and will filter these toxic microalgae out of the water and accumulate the toxins in their tissues. These fish in turn will be eaten by barracudas passing on the cigua toxins to the barracudas and causing the poisons to accumulate in the flesh," explained Mr. Buddo, who is also senior research officer of the Natural History division at The Institute of Jamaica.

Unfortunately, cigua toxin is unaffected by temperature, gastric acid, or cooking method. The presence of toxin does not affect odour, colour, or taste of the fish, said the biologist.

Manifestations of ciguatera in humans usually involves a combination of gastrointestinal, neurological and cardiovascular disorders.

Fisherman of 18 years, Ishmael Hall, informed Food that whenever the barracuda becomes sick, like humans they seek medicine. The medicine the barracuda will take in is a certain type of seaweed, referred to as copperweed, by fishermen. "When they (barracuda) are sick, they do not eat. They instead prey on their medicine."

Mr. Hall said the medicine when consumed by the barracuda and the fish is eaten by humans, can cause hair loss, diarrhoea and, or hospitalisation. "I wouldn't advise housewives to buy barracuda from anyone," he says.

Mr. Hall noted a trick often used by fishermen to identify if caught barracudas are poisonous, is that they attract insects. "If there is no fly or ant attracted to it, then it's poisonous. This is a tactic that has worked for years," said Hall who fishes throughout Jamaica.

Additional source: ~lifeguards/barracud.html


In the sea barracudas are good, fighting sporting fish. Mr. Buddo said that the barracuda is a ferocious predator. They use speed to attack and wound their prey. Barracudas primarily eat smaller fishes, such as mullets, anchovies and grunts. "They cruise through the warm oceans, covering great distances in the search for food. Once they have found their prey, the barracuda's streamlined, muscular body allows it to zoom into the shoal, snapping at anything in its path with rows of large razor-sharp teeth. The barracuda then returns to eat the wounded fish, cutting up larger fish with wide, powerful chomps," said Mr. Buddo.

Mr. Hall who has years of experience said a barracuda is easily identified, especially by the shape of its head. "The barracuda is known by its pointed head. Its head and teeth can make anyone scared because they are razor-sharp and strong. The scales of a barracuda are also a little bigger than others. The tail, too, has a V with an arched shape at the end."


Despite its notoriety Mr. Hall noted the barracuda is one of his favourite fish. "The taste is out of this world. Most people say it's a fisherman thing but the taste is fabulous for me."

"It tastes different, as its harder, not tender as other fish. When you fix up a barra' with the fish pickle and leave it for a day or two then eat it, you don't want anything else but a barracuda, again. I have customers who specifically ask for it."

Mr. Hall, however, warns consumers to be careful when purchasing fish as many fishermen cut the heads off of a barracuda and one might be buying a poisonous fish. "Most vendors cut it (the head) off and sell it as a king or mackerel fish because most people don't like barracuda."


The barracuda can grow up to two metres (six feet) in length. Its body is long and sleek, covered in small, smooth scales that help the barracuda cut through the water.

"Generally, fish larger than two kg (four pounds, four ounces) contain significant amounts of toxin and readily produce toxic effects when ingested. Fish at this size will consume large amounts of fish, and are more likely to accumulate high levels of cigua toxins," says Mr. Buddo.

When purchasing fish during this Lenten season make sure you know what fish you are buying.

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