Dead fish washing up on beaches in northern atolls

Large numbers of dead fish have been washing ashore on resorts and inhabited islands in the upper north of the Maldives in Noonu and Haa Atolls, reports the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture.

The dead fish are overwhelmingly red-tooth trigger fish (odonus niger, locally known as vaalan rondu), but include several other species of reef fishes including Acanthurids (surgeon fish) and Serranids.

The Marine Research Centre (MRC) is currently investigating the incident.

MRC Director General Shiham Adam said a series of similar incidents were reported from June-December in 2007. Tests showed the increased presence of the bacteria Staphylococcus in the spleen of fish samples, but the investigation was inconclusive.

“We sent samples sent to the US and it seemed be related to a bacterial infection in the gills that causes them to suffocate,” Shiham explained.

“A lot of people say it is global warming and environmental change. [Fish kill incidents] are not something that normally happens, so we are worried about it,” he said.

Minute changes in the environment during critical periods of a species’ life-cycle could trigger such events, Shiham explained.

A red tide can be a sign of an algal bloom

In a statement, the Fisheries Ministry noted that the Maldives lacked the capacity to deal with such large scale incidents of fish-kill, “so we have to resort to collaboration with institutes and individual parties from overseas. As such we are awaiting results from fish samples which have been sent to laboratories in India and Denmark.”

Marine biologists have also reported ‘red-tides’ in the lagoons and beaches of some resorts, which sometimes attributed to algal blooms, such as trichodesmium.

“Phytoplankton (or algal) blooms are reported to be a very common cause of fish kills around the globe,” noted the MRC’s report into the 2007 fish kill incidents.

“Controlled populations of several groups of potentially harmful algae usually belonging to the dinoflagellates) exist) in the marine environment. When conditions become favourable (nutrient enrichment of the waters, changes in physical conditions of the surrounding waters, etc) the microalgae (usually also associated with the secretion of toxins) populations burst causing mass mortalities of fish,” the report noted.

“These toxins are not necessarily always associated with fish kills, but rather the planktivores that feed on these dinoflagellates accumulate the toxins, which in turn affects higher predators (including human beings) that feeds on the toxin-accumulated fish.”

The statement from the Fisheries Ministry advised the public to not to eat the dead fish or go into murky water, as it may be potentially harmful to health.

The MRC requested that sightings of fish kill incidents and/or red tides be forwarded to MRC staff Ahmed Najeeb ([email protected]) or Faheeda Islam ([email protected]).

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Jellyfish sting inspires first book on dangerous Maldives marine life

The waters surrounding the Maldives have an international reputation for spectacular diving that entices hordes of visitors to the country every year.

Much of the credit for this goes to the prolific marine life, which ensures even the sharks are friendly – a flailing tourist is a difficult meal when all a shark has to do is open its mouth for the fish to swim inside.

But when injuries at the fins, spines, teeth and tentacles of marine life do occur, local medical facilities have proven ill-prepared to deal with them.

When local marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali visited an island doctor following a nasty sting from a Pelagia panopyra (Purple Jellyfish), he asked her why she had eaten one.

“I had swam through a soup of jellyfish and the itching was so bad I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls.

The doctor treated the symptoms with an IV and some anti-histamines, but later told her there was little literature available on the country’s dangerous or toxic marine life.

“His diagnosis was ‘fish stinger’,” she says. “I felt sympathetic so I took in a photo of the jellyfish the next day and the doctor began to ask a lot of other questions.”

Much of the literature Verena found was in German, and the treatments were varied. Conventional wisdom, such as applying vinegar to a jellyfish wound to deactivate the poison, was not always the case: “If you apply vinegar to the sting of a Portugese Man o’ War, it can have the opposite effect,” Verena discovered.

Researching further she did find a great many local stories along the lines of “‘there’s an animal this shape and this wide, and if you touch it your arm will fall off.'”

Assembling a team of doctors and marine biologists, including Dr Jens Lindner and Dr Reinhard Kilinger, she decided to write the Maldives’ first reference to dangerous, venomous and poisonous marine animals.

“We felt the need for a doctor’s reference that gives a detailed description of symptoms and recommendations for medical treatment,” she says, adding that one important inclusion was a Dhivehi reference dictionary for the local names of different species and dangerous seafood, such as sea urchins.

Beyond medical applications, Verena says the authors tried to make the book accessible “for anyone coming into contact with the sea, from snorkelers and divers to tourists and marine biologists.”

It includes information and treatment instructions for creatures like lion fish (“from a group known as scorpion fish that have quite strong venom – the display they make by spreading their fins is to show prey ‘I’m poisonous'”), sharks (“there are 35 species in the Maldives, including tiger sharks which can be more aggressive”,) and sting rays.

“Sting rays lie on the sea floor feeding on mollusks,” Verena explains. “They will move away from a person, but if stepped on they have venomous spines in their tail that can be fatal, as with [Australian TV personality] Steve Irwin. Most people are hit in the shin, but the spine is serrated and it normally has to be pushed through the limb; you can’t pull it, although now we can operate it out.”

Even seemingly-harmless surgeon fish can cause painful injuries: “They have a blade at the base of their tail fin.”

At a presentation on the book to doctors and nurses at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) today, president of the Maldivian Medical Association Dr Azeez Yoosuf noted that while Male’s roads caused more injuries than the country’s waters, “there is a lot of inappropriate treatment of injuries caused by marine creatures.”

“We come across island hospitals where wounds caused by sting rays have been nicely stitched up, but because of the toxins the wound becomes necrotic. It’s better to keep the wound open, but the tendency is to stitch it,” he explains.

Surgeon fish injuries were surprisingly common, he added. “You can safely swim through a school of surgeon fish. But curious tourists sometimes try to pat them and get a big cut on their hand, which can become a problem because the [tail] can be covered in a lot of slime.”

As for the tremendously poisonous stonefish, “we don’t have the anti-venom, it’s only available in Australia. We just treat the pain.”

Despite their fearsome reputation, shark attacks were very rare, he said.

“The only shark bite I’ve seen was on someone who caught one and tried to get the fishhook out by putting his hand in the [live] shark’s mouth.”

The traditional treatment for jellyfish stings, he noted, was “hot urine or alcohol.”

Inspired by a jellyfish sting
Inspired by a jellyfish sting

“Dangerous Marine Animals – Biology, Injuries & Medical Treatment” (Kikinger, Lindner, Wiesbauer-Ali 2009) is printed and published in the Maldives and is available directly from the publisher Atoll Images, Ma. Shah, Dhidhi Goalhi, Male’ (3341643).

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