Left for Dead: Burrfish Bycatch in the Lagoon

A striped burrfish left for dead in the IRL

In 2005 I shot this photo of a striped burrfish I found along the edge of the Mosquito Lagoon inside the park boundaries of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  At the time, I found it peculiar.  Here was a reasonably perfect burrfish specimen completely clear of the high tide mark and several feet from the water.  How the heck did it get there?

Since it was spring break, I had other things on my mind and didn’t give the oddity much thought.  I did find it upsetting, primarily due to the charming personality I’d observed in another burrfish while interning at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Puffy was his name. 

These days, I know exactly how that poor burrfish wound up far from home.

Burrfish belong to the fish order Diodontidae, a group related to other similarly adorable and inflating fish including pufferfish, porcupinefish, blowfish, and more.  All share several predator-combating advantages, including the production of a toxic substance in their internal organs called tetrodotoxin.  If this puffer talk prompted your memories about the practice of eating Fugu in Japan, this is the same toxin that makes those puffers hazardous and consuming them a sort of culinary dare.

A fantastic photo from the FishBase.org database

But not all of the fish produce the toxin at all times.  Striped burrfish don’t.  Neither do their close relatives bridled burrfish, which are also found in the lagoon. There are fourteen other species of pufferfish and puffer-like fishes living in the IRL system, a few of which do produce the toxin.  Which is a good reason not to eat these fish. 

Puffers and their kin can also harbor another dangerous toxin – saxitoxin.  This one is thought to find its way into pufferfish by traveling up the food chain from dinoflagellates (long lost algae relatives) into shellfish and from there into the puffers. 

In 2002 twenty-eight cases of saxitoxin poisoning were reported from the IRL system concentrated within Brevard county and especially around TitusvilleLater in the year two additional cases were reported from New York!  Apparently anglers on vacation had frozen puffer filets and consumed them months later when they were at home in NY. 

The veritable outbreak of cases prompted CDC and FDA action, as well as action from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which put a year long ban on the harvest of puffers in several counties along the Indian River Lagoon.  In 2004 the ban was extended indefinitely. 

After the intial flurry of outreach in 2002, an additional seven cases were reported until 2004.  (I can’t find anything about saxitoxin cases since that time.)  Ultimately, anglers changed their behavior – they don’t eat pufferfish from the Lagoon anymore. 

How do I know this?  I regularly find burrfish and pufferfish left for dead on the shores of the Lagoon in all three zones (the Indian River Lagoon, Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River).  In a way this is concrete evidence that the outreach was effective in prohibiting further saxitoxin poisoning that could endanger the public. 

But the surprising outcome of 2002’s outbreak is heartbreaking to me.  Pufferfish and burrfish are regular bycatch in the Lagoon, and instead of placing the fish back in estuary waters, anglers cut the lines and leave them to suffocate on air, flopping on mangrove roots and seagrass wrack. 

A discarded southern or bandtail puffer left to rot.

They are easily caught on most of the bait used by recreational fishers in the IRL system.  When I recently asked several fishermen in an impromptu survey why they purposefully killed pufferfish and burrfish I heard the following repeated in many ways:

“They’re bait stealers.  If I put a pufferfish back in the water he’ll be back in just a few moments to take the hook again.”

Even more heartbreaking, in my opinion, I heard this same line parroted to me by several dozen fourth-grade students during field trips to the IRL system in 2006 and 2007. 

What are we teaching each other and our children when anglers deliberately kill bycatch because of their perceived danger to human health (but only when eaten) and their apparent reputation as a nuisance shrimp thief? 

Personally, I have seen far too many puffers and burrfish rotting on the sidelines of the Lagoon system.  How can we emphasize to Florida’s recreational fishermen that these fish have a place in the estuary ecosystem and that their deaths for human convenience are both unnecessary and potentially harmful to the estuary system that anglers love? 

Where would you begin?  How would you voice this concern without giving anglers a loophole with which to hang the argument?  How can we get recreational fishermen to think of the ripple effects their actions have on the waters of the Lagoon? 

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