As already mentioned, the only way to be certain to avoid ciguatera is not eating reef fish or predators of reef fish.
We spear fish because it is fun, good exercise, something to do with people we meet ashore or on the water, and really cuts our grocery bill when successful.
It’s a comfort level with risk that each person has to decide on individually. We decided that we were comfortable with the risk of ciguatera from eating reef fish under certain conditions.
In French Polynesia and the Cook Islands we have been following these guidelines in hopes of minimizing our risk:
Ask two separate people which fish are safe to eat. If there is disagreement on a fish, don’t eat it. At least one of those two people must be a local. The other can be a cruiser if they have been in the area for a long time. If the person makes their living from selling fish or serving fish in a restaurant, they are excluded.
If we move to a different area of the atoll, ask again. Fish that are safe in one area of the atoll aren’t necessarily safe in another area of the atoll.
We don’t eat larger sizes of any species. When asking around, ask for a good size.
Use a picture book to eliminate confusion about species. The addition of a waterproof flip book of local species has been a big step forward in our spear fishing knowledge. We keep it with us when snorkeling or fishing and can use it to point to when discussing fish with other people. Our book has the French, Tahitian and English names of each fish. Although it doesn’t have every single fish in it, it has the main species and provides a starting point for description. We found ours at a local dive shop although you can find similar plasticized fish guides for this area online.
The first time we eat a species in an area of an atoll, eat a small portion. We might cook the whole fish but eat half a filet and save the rest for the next day. The idea is that if the fish is toxic we might experience mild symptoms rather than intense symptoms.
Ume Tarei in reality, and in the picture book:
So far, we haven’t had ciguatera, but we are taking a risk. We’ll let you know if things change…