Recent reports of fish poisoning sparked concern among Egyptian consumers, as several people died after eating puffer fish.
According to Majid Mustafa, a market observer for the Fisheries Authority, "six people died from eating the fish in 2012, raising the number of poisoning victims to 24 over the past three years."
"The market has been flooded with puffer fish, and we have also observed cases of food poisoning and deaths due to consumption in Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez," Mustafa told Al-Shorfa.
Puffer fishing is banned because of its poisonous nature, he said. Yet, despite the ban, some fishermen still catch the fish, which Mustafa said is often referred to as "rabbit fish" because it appears to have two teeth at the front of its mouth, similar to a rabbit.
In order to skirt the ban, fishermen sometime cut puffers into strips to hide its main features before selling it to markets as fillet fish, Mustafa said.
"This type [of fish] has been breeding heavily since 2007 in waters surrounding Egypt, and summertime is its mating season, which is why in the past two year, poisoning cases emerged at the same time," Mustafa said.
In addition, the increase in poisoning cases is exacerbated by a weak oversight system of both fishing practices and marketplace activity, Mustafa said. He also cited a low level of awareness among consumers, many of whom are drawn to lower prices of fish sold by street vendors.
The Fisheries Authority, the Veterinary Association and the Food Inspection Agency, however, are working to prevent the sale of this type of fish in the market, Mustafa said.
"Some inaccurate information about the toxicity of the puffer fish has been circulating," said Dr. Isam Fakhri, a public health and poisoning specialist. "The fish is not poisonous as a whole. The toxins are concentrated in its liver, intestines and skin."
"The poison in the fish is a result of its feeding on poisonous algae and remnants of fish and shellfish, which interact with bacteria inside the fish that is unaffected by cooking, so the majority of poisoning cases result from consuming the cooked fish," he said.
The puffer fish holds enough toxins to poison 100 people, Fakhri said, adding that symptoms begin to appear if an individual consumes even just one milligram of the poison. The symptoms include fainting, vomiting and extended periods of sleep, while some people might suffer from numbness of the face.
If patients report dizziness, vomiting and breathing difficulties, death may be imminent, especially if the proper medication is unavailable, he added
The number of reported deaths caused by eating puffer fish is difficult to confirm because many cases are reported as simple food poisoning, he said.
Mohammed al-Gindi, a professor at the Veterinary College of Cairo University, said other poisonous fish are caught off the Egyptian coasts, but puffer fish breed much more sporadically and prefer to live in deep water.
Al-Gindi told Al-Shorfa they can be as long as one meter and weigh up to 12 kilograms. He also said the reduction in fishing during the past couple of years contributed to a reproduction boom.
He added that while the puffer fish is dangerous, it has been eaten in Japan for hundreds of years, where it is called fugu and is highly valued for its taste.
However, only skilled fishermen and cooks can remove the skin and separate the toxic parts from the non-poisonous flesh, he said. If mistakes are made while cleaning the fish, it can cause the poison to seep into other parts and lead to poisoning. He added that the individual cleaning the fish can also be poisoned if he has an open wound.
The poison remains in the body after recovery and takes a long time before it is completely purged, he added.