REACTION : Ciguatera Poisoning: Out of adversity an opportunity to better understand the live fish trade
In June of this year, 19 people who had eaten coral reef fish at a Lamma Island, Hong Kong restaurant fell ill with symptoms of the potentially lethal ciguatera poisoning. Ciguatera poisoning is caused where the reef fish consumed carries Ciguatoxins, which come from toxic micro-organisms living on dead coral and algae that large predatory coral reef fish feed on.
While not affecting the fish, symptoms arising from humans ingesting the deadly toxin include numbness of the mouth and limbs, heart palpitations, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, and flushes, with excessive consumption affecting the circulatory and nervous systems.
Fortunately none of the fourteen men and five women aged 23 to 71 were seriously affected, and only one was hospitalized. The Hong Kong government takes the issue of food health and safety very seriously however, so seriously in fact that it recently passed legislation through its Legislative Council (LEGCO) aiming to safeguard the consuming public against future ciguatera incidents by identifying where the infected fish were caught.
A big appetite for live reef fishHong Kong is a culinary oasis—the world’s epicenter for the consumption of live reef fish, by locals and international tourists alike. The sight of aquarium tanks outside restaurants filled with a variety of colorful “live” seafood, including coral reef fish, is one of Hong Kong’s iconic images.
But with Hong Kong waters now depleted of these fish, reef fish are captured across Asia Pacific, kept alive for sale, and transported over thousands of kilometres to be steamed and eaten.
Most of the high value species such as the Leopard coral grouper and Humphead wrasse are transported by air but a high number of these live reef fish enter Hong Kong each year via sea onboard “Live Transport Vessels” (LTVs).
Tracing seafoodIn the past, it has not been a requirement for these Hong Kong-registered LTVs to either disclose their ‘live’ cargo – interestingly because “live fish” are not regarded as food – or the source of their catch.
It is this information vacuum that authorities are attempting to fill through the new Food Safety Ordinance which compulsorily requires live fish importers to keep records of fish origin, description (e.g., fish species), quantity, and all subsequent traders of live fish to record who they bought from.
Theoretically, with this system, the fish from the restaurant on Lamma Island could be traced back to the distributor and importer and eventually the fishing area in the country where the fish was landed.
While this Ordinance is mainly intended as a measure to improve food safety for consumers, it may be too early yet to assess its effectiveness.
From food safety to traceabilityThe potential benefits of this Ordinance go well beyond just food safety. Seafood traceability is becoming increasingly important to all kinds of seafood businesses. In Hong Kong, there is a growing trend in restaurants, hotels, retailers, and even consumers wanting to know the origin of their seafood and whether it is wild-caught or farmed.
Currently, it is not mandatory for the information now being collected under this Ordinance to be submitted to authorities, except where a food safety incident triggers the need, and traders are under no obligation to share any information with non-government agencies such as WWF or academic institutions.
However, making the whole trade more transparent and information more available to consumers and businesses not only helps address food safety concerns, it also provides key information to empower them to choose more sustainable seafood options using the WWF Seafood Guide. This is like killing two birds with one stone.
While these measures are driven by a domestic need for food safety, the information this Ordinance will collect does spill over into the international arena and could notionally provide fundamental trade and scientific data where little currently exists; particularly Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) exports of live fish from the Coral Triangle countries and beyond.
As one of Asia’s most important hubs for imported seafood, we see this as an opportunity for Hong Kong to become a more responsible global citizen and hope that in time, this information will become more readily available to all.