An international team of researchers headed by Michael Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University aims to better understand the factors that influence the occurrence of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP), the most common form of phycotoxin-borne seafood poisoning in the world. The source of these toxins is the benthic dinoflagellate, Gambierdiscus, which commonly associates with macroalgae (seaweed). Herbivores (fish and invertebrates) feed upon the macroalgae, thereby ingesting the Gambierdiscus cells and their toxins. Carnivores (fish) consume the herbivores, causing the toxins to move into the foodweb. People can be exposed to the toxins by consuming these herbivores and carnivores, leading to CFP. CiguaHAB is an anticipated 5-year project funded by NOAA’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) Program designed to investigate the conditions that lead to higher toxin production in order to better predict CFP outbreaks.
CiguaHAB will produce a comprehensive understanding of the diversity, physiology and ecology of Gambierdiscus populations in the Greater Caribbean Region (GCR). The GCR was chosen because of the long history of CFP in some areas (e.g., St. Thomas and the Florida Keys) coupled with the recent outbreaks of CFP in other areas (e.g., Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the Bahamas). Major outcomes and products will also include conceptual models to explain the dynamics of Gambierdiscus blooms and ciguatoxicity in the region, as well as numerical models that simulate population dynamics and toxin production under different environmental forcings. In addition to the substantial scientific knowledge generated by this research, these products represent a major advance in the development of management tools to predict and prevent this complex HAB phenomenon.