Egypt sounds alarm over toxic puffer fish

Egypt warns its citizens of the spread of a toxic fish on the market that causes poisoning, paralysis or coma, and can even lead to death within six to eight hours.

al-monitor A boat sails in the waters of the estuary of the Nile River's Damietta branch into the Mediterranean Sea, Ras el-Bar, northern Damietta governorate, Egypt, Oct. 22, 2019. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

death, toxins, health, food, poisoning, fishing, fish

Dec 20, 2020

CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population has recently warned Egyptians of the spread of a toxic fish on the market known as the Takifugu, puffer fish or rabbitfish, which is characterized by its gray skin and is one of the deadliest in the world. 

In a video published Dec. 5 on its official Facebook page, the ministry said that this fish should by no means be consumed and any shop owner or shop found to be selling it shall be reported.

The ministry said that consuming the fish could cause death within six to eight hours, and added that the poisoning symptoms are abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, muscle paralysis, low blood pressure, low heart rate, body numbness, shortness of breath and in some cases paralysis or coma.

The Takifugu fish lives in both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It is characterized by its gray skin color, its large dark eyes and its small mouth that resembles the mouth of a rabbit. It can grow up to 53 centimeters (21 inches) long and has strong fins. It has sharp, pointed teeth. It is also known as puffer fish because it inflates itself when it is threatened, and as rabbitfish because its teeth are similar to those of a rabbit.

This fish contains glands that are highly toxic. Its poison is concentrated under its skin and in the head and entrails of the fish. Its liver is very poisonous. There are 39 species that live in the sea and 28 species that live in freshwater. Its poison can cause human death within six to eight hours.

The ministry’s warning was issued due to the toxic fish being caught, and prevent any deaths among citizens. So far, no poisoning cases have been reported.

Some traders in Egypt are skinning the Takifugu and selling it as any other fish fillet.

Khaled al-Husseini, former head of the General Authority for Fish Resources Development and adviser to the current minister of agriculture, told Al-Monitor that this type of fish is common in Egypt. Its main habitat, he said, is the Red Sea, but it subsequently entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. It is mainly found in the Sidi Barani, Matrouh and Sallum regions.

Husseini said that the Takifugu is poisonous because the gland secretes a type of toxin, and no vaccine has been developed to stop the activity of the poison inside the body of this fish.

He noted that some fishermen are able to cut off its head and remove the gland as soon as it is caught, but many others do not know how to deal with this fish and mess it up while trying to remove the gland. This very act, he lamented, spreads the poison in the body of the fish and causes poisoning to those who eat it.

Husseini called on Egyptians not to eat this type of fish, which, he said, should only be caught by professionals capable of extracting its toxins and cleaning the fish before selling it, especially considering that there is a lack of awareness among Egyptians of this type of fish. About 95% of the Takifugu being sold is poisonous and only 5% is suitable for consumption, he said. The Egyptian state must also raise awareness until the necessary measures are taken so that this fish is safe for consumers, Husseini said.

Youssef al-Abed, a veterinarian and former head of the Fisheries Development Committee at the Veterinarians Syndicate, told Al-Monitor that not many Egyptians are aware of the rodent fish. He said the Takifugu is sacred to the Japanese people, as they cut off its head and extract the gland as soon as it is caught.

The Takifugu has proliferated in the past 10 years in the Alexandria and Matrouh governorates, and the fishing and sale of the Takifugu was banned.

Abed said that this fish has a distinctive head shape with sharp teeth and a body that inflates when it comes out of the water. He called on the Egyptian state to launch awareness campaigns on the dangers of the Takifugu, and issue a law that limits and sanctions the fishing of this poisonous fish.

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