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Deadly fish thriving in Lebanon's waters.

Summary: At 1 p.m. on this sunny Thursday afternoon, Tripoli fishermen Ibrahim Shehade and Ishc Sidawi should be out at sea. Instead, they sit forlornly watching cars pass by on the Mina sea road.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: At 1 p.m. on this sunny Thursday afternoon, Tripoli fishermen Ibrahim Shehade and Ishc Sidawi should be out at sea. Instead, they sit forlornly watching cars pass by on the Mina sea road.

There is no work for them on the water, something they blame on the recent boom of rapidly spawning and lethal puffer fish -- neffaykh in Arabic -- in the sea their families have trawled for generations.

"There's a war going on in Tripoli, both at land and at sea," says Sidawi, 27, despondently.

Sitting next to him, the older, more pensive Shehade, 39, adds: "This puffer fish is causing us fishermen a lot of damage because it's eating smaller fish and ripping our nets. On top of this, they say it's poisonous, so we can't sell it."

The fish could also be described as opportunistic as it eats other fish caught in nets, effectively taking away the fishermen's catch as well as ruining their gear.

Native to the Indo-Pacific region, Lagocephalus sceleratus -- a species of highly poisonous puffer fish -- first arrived in the Mediterranean around 10 years ago after it spread through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. It has seen a population boom in the last three or four years, taking a critical toll on fishermen in Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Egypt, among other countries, by consuming large amounts of smaller fish and damaging fishing equipment.

There are currently seven types of puffer fish lurking in the eastern Mediterranean waters, but this one is the most dangerous.

"The bigger it gets, the more toxic it becomes," says Manal R. Nader, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Balamand. "It's not a nice fish to work with."

Nader and two of his colleagues, Shadi Indary and Layal Ephrem Boustany, are the only people to have released an academic study on this particular breed of fish. According to the 2012 report, it caused 13 recorded deaths in the eastern Mediterranean before 2010, and it is likely that there have been many more since.

The toxin in puffer fish, Tetrodotoxin, comes from its gallbladder, and if cut up incorrectly, the organ will release its deadly poison. People who consume incorrectly prepared puffer fish report feeling a loss of sensation in their face or tongue and sometimes partial paralysis.

"Consuming it is like playing Russian roulette, it will lead to organ damage or death," Nader says, adding that there is currently no available antidote for the toxin.

In July 2011, the Agriculture Ministry banned fishing, selling and consuming any of the seven species of puffer fish found in the Mediterranean Sea in decree 272/1, following several hospitalization cases of those who ate the fish.

But not everyone agrees with this assessment. At a fish market near Tripoli's Mina seafront, a portly employee proudly displays two puffer fish, holding one in each hand.

"We used to sell the dangerous kind until we found out that it's poisonous. Now, fishermen know not to bring it but if they do, we dispose of it immediately," says Walid, whose family runs this local market. Fishermen bring their daily bounty to his market so his employees can clean the fish and sell them to customers.

"The puffer fish we have is not the same," he says, pointing to a shiny, greenish colored fish. "The meat in this one is alright to eat."

Back at the seafront, Sidawi says he too isn't worried about the poison. "We make shish taouk out if it," he boasts. "It's the tastiest fish."

Still, he refuses to sell it to others. "If we sold it, we could poison someone. Would you allow yourself to poison or hurt people?"

The recent hardship, though, has worn down Shehade, and he is less resistant to the idea: "If there is somebody who wants it, we'll catch it and sell it to them."

Nader, however, warns against any sort of consumption.

"We should take the precautionary perspective, which is not to consume any of the seven types," he says, citing a lack of scientific research about the fish's effect when eaten. "Why put your life at risk?"

While the fish may be banned by Lebanese law, Nader says that 50 percent of worldwide fish sales are made on the black market. In Japan, where chefs and restaurants are regulated by the government, the fish is also banned, and yet around 100 deaths occur each year there from illegal consumption.

For most, the risk of selling it as food is too high, and as a result fishermen in Lebanon and around the eastern Mediterranean are struggling to deal with the puffer fish's drastic population spike. Multiple sources told The Daily Star that when fishermen did catch the animal, they cut off its head and throw it back in the sea in order to prevent it from reproducing.

"It's eating other fish and sometimes nets and other gear," Ismail Akra, president of the Fishermen Order in north Lebanon, says.

"If we could fish this and sell it, we'd create special nets for it," Shehade adds.

Nader believes the government should set up competitions for fishermen to catch puffer fish in order to reduce its population, something he says would need to be kept up over a 10-15 year period in order to be effective.

The fishermen could also theoretically sell the Tetrodotoxin in the puffer fish's gallbladder to pharmaceutical researchers, Nader says.

Either way, something needs to be done, he says.

"It's affecting the economic sector and might have an impact on biodiversity," he says. "It's here to stay and will never leave unless the national environment changes to exclude it."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Apr 7, 2014
Words:994
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