Posted on: August 31, 2010

Why Are Striped Pufferfish Dying in Hawaii?

MA'ALAEA, HI -- People who spend time on the ocean around the Hawaiian Islands -- including Pacific Whale Foundation's naturalists, captains and researchers -- are talking about the high frequency of sightings of dead pufferfish over the past few months.

The cause of the deaths is unknown. In an effort to understand the problem, officials at the State Department of Aquatic Resources (DAR) are asking ocean users to collect specimens of the nearly dead or freshly dead pufferfishes for analysis.

In early July, Pacific Whale Foundation's research team collected a striped pufferfish specimen which was given to the Department of Aquatic Resources and flown to Oahu. The fish is the largest pufferfish of the 11 pufferfish that the state biologists have necropsied. So far, all of the dead pufferfish collected have been female. It appears that they may be suffering from a virus.

The enclosed photo, which shows the dead pufferfish before it was collected, includes another living pufferfish biting into the deceased animal. "Pufferfish are carnivorous but they don't normally eat other fish," says Kristen Jule, PhD, Research Director at Pacific Whale Foundation. "They have fused teeth which allow them to feed on coral, sea sponges, echinoderms (sea stars and sea urchins), clams and mussels."

"Obviously, we are very concerned about any situation where you see an unusually large number of fish dying," says Pacific Whale Foundation Researcher Annie Macie. "We are interested to learn what the wildlife disease specialists discover about the deaths of the pufferfishes."

If you encounter a diseased or dead pufferfish, please do the following:

1) Doocument where and when the fish was found.

2) On Maui, report sick or dead pufferfish to Darla White at 808-243-5294 or by emailing darla.j.white@hawaii.gov

3) The DAR team is looking for fish that are sick or on death's door. If the fish is dead with skin peeling or smells, they cannot do much with it. In that case, simply document where and when you found it. Please keep the fish cool, on ice, but do not freeze it. The Department of Aquatic Resources will work with you to get suitable fish specimens to Oahu for examination.

4) When the fish arrives at the Department of Aquatic Resources lab, the researchers will do a complete external and internal exam (necropsy), take tissue for microscopy, and freeze various tissues and fluids for additional laboratory assays. In addition to their efforts, DAR is collaborating with fish disease labs on the Mainland to try and get answers.

Questions can be answered by contacting the State Wildlife Disease Team at (808) 792-9520.

"We want to help get specimens of the fish to the Department of Aquatic Resources so they can unlock the mystery of these pufferfish deaths," says Kristen Jule, PhD, Research Director at Pacific Whale Foundation. "We know that field data plays a critical role in answering questions about situations like this one. We are thankful that we're able to assist the effort."

To learn more about Pacific Whale Foundation, please visit www.pacificwhale.org.