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FDA WARNS OF ILLNESS FROM TAINTED FISH IN GULF OF MEXICO

Several outbreaks of ciguatera fish poisoning have been confirmed in consumers who ate fish harvested in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico off Texas, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.

The FDA said that fish such as grouper, snapper, amberjack and barracuda represent the most significant threat to consumers. They feed on fish that have eaten toxic marine algae. The toxin does not harm the fish. But larger carnivores have higher concentrations of the toxin in their tissues. As a result, the greatest risk of poisoning for humans comes from the largest fish.

Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include nausea, vomiting, vertigo and joint pain. In the most serious cases, neurological problems can last for months or even years. Several outbreaks of the illness were confirmed in Washington and St. Louis, the FDA said. Overall, there have been at least 28 reported cases, with the first reported in late November.

The outbreak should not affect seafood caught off west-central Florida. Ciguatera has never occurred in the eastern gulf, except for a few rare cases near the Dry Tortugas, said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association.

Almost all commercial grouper is caught off Florida, with only minor amounts harvested in Texas. Red snapper can come from the northwestern gulf but is usually shipped to "Colorado, New York and other places where people will pay the high prices,'' Jones said.

The fish linked to the illnesses were harvested near the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northwestern gulf, and the FDA recommends that processors not purchase fish harvested near there.

Consumers who think they may have ciguatera poisoning should call a doctor or local health department.

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

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