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The South Pacific Islands Survey–One Illness Threatens a Cook Islander’s Way of Life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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An update is long overdue! A short bout of heat stroke put me out for a week and then I was working around the clock to produce a short video about a Cook Island resident who contracted fish poisoning:

Mataiti is far and away one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He got fish poisoning in 2007 and has spent the last five years trying to recover. He was hospitalized for several months during which time he was comatose and then paralyzed when he awoke. He’s been re-learning to walk and talk—both of which are very difficult since there is no rehabilitation specialist or speech therapist on the island.

But while we did the interview he was joking around and laughing. For someone with a debilitating illness, I found this remarkable; he seems completely undaunted by his experience.

I met Mataiti after investigating ciguatera, a foodborne illness caused by eating certain reef fish whose flesh is contaminated with toxins originally produced by dinoflagellates, which live in tropical and subtropical waters.

These dinoflagellates adhere to coral, algae and seaweed, where they are eaten by herbivorous fish who in turn are eaten by larger carnivorous fish. In this way the toxins move up the foodchain and bioaccumulate.*

The toxin also bioaccumulates in humans, so that you might eat a contaminated fish and be fine. It might only be after eating several poisoned fish that you feel the effects since the toxins only become harmful after a certain dosage.

This short, three-minute video tells Mataiti’s story and how he’s learning to rebuild his once active life.

Note: I filmed this video with professional photographer and filmmaker Justin Bastien. This was completely a joint effort, so I owe a huge thanks to Justin. Special thanks to Pacific Divers for their underwater footage.

* This definition of ciguatera is taken directly from the New Oxford American Dictionary.

 

About the Author: Lindsey Hoshaw is a freelance environmental journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Forbes, among others. In her spare time she moonlights as a garbologist studying people and the things they throw away. Follow her on Twitter @thegarbagegirl.

Editor’s note: The South Pacific Islands Survey is part of a larger multiyear expedition run by Pangaea Exploration, a nonprofit that investigates the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and educational outreach. The expedition focuses on marine debris, water quality, habitat conditions and overfishing in the world’s oceans. Specific emphasis is placed on the five gyres, or the five areas with the highest accumulation of plastic pollution.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kpacheco 4:02 pm 07/11/2011

    Incredible story, I had no idea that pig farms were causing such a disease. Thanks for the good info!

    Link to this

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