Monthly Archives: August 1996

Golden plovers are back for their Hawaiian feast

Published August 26, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

About two weeks ago, I had a golden plover day. My phone rang just as I was getting out of bed. “Sorry to call so early,” a longtime reader’s voice said. “I wanted to tell you that the golden plovers are back.”

“What?” I mumbled.

“The plovers. They’re back in Hawaii. I saw one yesterday at home and another today at work. You know, you haven’t written about plovers in a long time.”

“Thanks for the news,” I said, admiring this bird-lover’s enthusiasm.

A couple of hours later, a surfer friend mentioned that he had seen a sign of summer’s end: A plover was in the beach park. Later that afternoon, I received a notice in the mail announcing a new golden plover publication.

That monograph, which arrived last week, turned out to be a treasure trove of information about these exquisite shorebirds.

Hawaii’s winter visitors, called Pacific golden plovers, make some of the longest migrations in the world, some traveling more than 4,000 miles in nonstop flights over water. Such journeys occur twice a year – in April, when the birds fly to their Arctic breeding grounds, and in August, when they return to their tropical wintering grounds.

The first birds to arrive, and likely what my caller and friend saw, are mature females, pooped from the chores of egg laying and chick rearing. The males, who also sit on eggs and feed hungry mouths, appear next. In October, most of the juveniles arrive.

In Hawaii, golden plovers also called kolea, are unmistakable, prancing on delicate legs in a distinct stop-run-stop motion on beaches, in grassy beach parks and even on paved surfaces. But this dainty dance isn’t for our entertainment. These birds are busy searching for any invertebrates – and some vertebrates – they can find. On the beach, these are snails, crabs, and worms; on the ground it’s pests such as roaches, spiders and slugs. Sometimes, plovers eat small fish, skinks and geckos.

Pacific golden plovers hold a colorful place in the islands’ history.

Some people believe that ancient seafaring Polynesians interpreted the plover’s migration cycle to mean that land lay to the north, thus leading to Hawaii’s human colonization.

Judging from ancient middens, or trash heaps, Hawaii’s early settlers valued plovers for food as well as guidance. Hunters caught the birds with leg snares, using worms for bait.

Plovers are often mentioned in hula chants and Hawaiian folklore. These birds were thought to be the embodiment of Koleamoku, a god of healing and a messenger of chiefs.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, golden plovers were hunted with abandon. Near New Orleans in the spring of 1821, hunters shot about 48,000 of them in a single day. In the 1850s in Portland, Maine, hunters sold dead plovers for 25 cents a dozen, many spoiling before being sold.

Hunters also shot Pacific golden plovers in Hawaii until 1941, often exceeding the daily limit of 15.

Golden plovers are now protected in nearly all of the Western Hemisphere, but hunting still occurs in Barbados, parts of South America, India, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. About 2,000 birds a year are shot in Java alone.

Researchers believe Hawaii has recovered its former golden plover numbers.

These shorebirds are territorial, usually returning to, and defending, the same wintering spot year after year. If a plover comes to your yard or beach each year, it’s probably the same individual.

Plovers’ feathers change from golden brown in winter to striking breeding colors in spring.

If you get to know one of these birds, you may have a friend for a long time. Golden plovers can live at least 15 years.

Juvenile goatfish, called oama, are good to eat or use as bait

Published August 19, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Last weekend, while visiting my sailboat in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, I saw a group of fishermen standing around in knee deep water. Each held a small fishing pole which he jerked up and down with great concentration. When I looked into the nets fastened to the men’s waists, I saw dozens of silvery little oama.

Oama are juveniles (7 inches or less) of the goatfish known in Hawaii as weke.

Weke have one or more stripes running the entire length of the fish’s body. Four of Hawaii’s nine native species of goatfish are called weke, some with variations such as weke’a, weke-ula, or weke pueo. Common English names for weke are white goatfish, yellow goatfish, orange goatfish and bandtail goatfish.

Weke are mostly inshore fish but newly hatched weke head offshore to feed on plankton. When the fry are 3-4 inches long, they cruise back in schools, usually in August, searching for shrimp, worms and other invertebrates along sandy bottoms.

Goatfish search for food by stirring up the sand with wiggly chin whiskers called barbels. Goatfish get their name from these chin whiskers, which leave little puffs of sand clouds in the fishes’ wake.

Since the fish taste their food first with their barbels, alert anglers can sometimes hook oama under their chins rather than in the mouths. Oama are crazy for shrimp, a common bait, but also bite on pieces of fish flesh, including other oama. Each angler can keep 50 oama per day.

Anglers like to catch these small goatfish for several purposes. One is to use them as bait for catching papio (young ulua or jacks), which come inshore during this time to feed on oama. One fisherman told me oama is the master bait for papio, but the oama must be kept alive.

Others prefer to eat their oama. Another fisherman told me that you scale the fresh fish, remove the entrails and gills, dip the fish into your favorite batter, then fry with the heads on.

Some people eat oama raw after salting them.

No illnesses have been reported from eating oama, but the same is not true of some adult weke. Weke’a, weke pueo and some mullets have been implicated in a poisoning that causes temporary illness with hallucinations.

This poisoning is relatively rare. In 1994, three cases were reported; 1995 had only one case; 1996 has had two cases so far. Hallucinatory fish poisoning is most common in the summer months, occurring in fish caught near Molokai, Kauai and Oahu.

No one knows why this poisoning occurs, but the toxin appears to be concentrated in the heads.

To be safe, don’t eat the heads of mullet and weke caught near Molokai, Kauai or Oahu in June, July or August.

Symptoms develop in five to 90 minutes. These are tingling around the mouth, sweating, weakness, hallucinations and chest tightness. The toxin affects some individuals during sleep, producing vivid nightmares. Because of this, some call the band-tailed goatfish “the nightmare weke.” Hawaiians called this same fish weke pahulu (chief of the ghosts).

Victims hallucinating, or extremely depressed, should go to an emergency facility for help. Others should remain calm and wait until symptoms disappear, usually overnight.

Save any remaining fish for analysis. Report all cases to the State Department of Health.

Ciguatera fish poisoning remedied by new drug

Published August 12, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Several years ago, a Marshall Islands newspaper editor wrote to me about ciguatera fish poisoning.

“Please tell your readers about the new mannitol treatment,” he wrote. “It has saved lives here.”

I knew where this editor got his information since the physician who discovered it, Neal Palafox, now practices in Wahiawa.

So I called Dr. Palafox to find out the most recent information about mannitol as a treatment for ciguatera poisoning.

“It looks good, but the jury’s still out,” he said. “We’re in the middle of doing a randomized, double-blind clinical study.”

Such controlled studies are crucial in medicine, where the placebo effect can account for a whopping 30 percent of “cures” or other favorable results.

In the mysterious world of the placebo effect, patients and doctors unintentionally sway the results of a treatment by their own perceptions of what the outcome should be.

If a doctor, for instance, tells a patient that a shot will make him feel better, up to 30 percent of the time it will, even if it’s plain water.

Also, doctors’ beliefs, or disbeliefs, significantly alter results.

Because of this, good studies must be double-blinded. Neither the patient nor the doctor knows which medicine is real, and which is fake.

Palafox and his colleagues designed such a study. Their double-blind trial included 42 patients from five hospitals in three Pacific island nations from 1992 to 1995. By random choice, some patients received mannitol, some sugar water, both intravenously.

Even after the study was over, however, the answer was still unclear. The statistics had to be impartially analyzed.

Finally, years after his first observation that mannitol relieved some of the symptoms of ciguatera fish poisoning, Palafox has some firm data. The study, soon to be published, (no details available yet) shows that yes indeed, mannitol helps ease the misery of some ciguatera symptoms.

A key word here is some. The medicine doesn’t relieve all of ciguatera’s many ills, nor is it a cure for the actual poisoning. The good news, however, is that even six or more days after the initial poisoning, mannitol still helps.

Mannitol, used in the past mostly to rid the body of excess water, has been around a long time. No one knows why or how this medication works on ciguatera symptoms, which is one reason the medical community has been reluctant to adopt or endorse this treatment.

Even though Palafox’s new study does not answer these questions, it does show mannitol helps. Its use in ciguatera poisoning should increase.

Ciguatera fish poisoning exists in oceans between 35 degrees north and south of the equator. (The Hawaiian Islands lie within that range at about 19 through 29 degrees north.)

The poisoning originates from a tiny dinoflagellate that small, grazing fish eat. Larger fish eat these grazers and pass the poison up the food chain to humans.

Ciguatoxic fish look and taste normal. Neither cooking, freezing nor drying deactivates this toxin.

About 90 percent of people who eat affected fish get sick 15 minutes to 12 hours later. Since the toxin affects nerves, symptoms are numerous and widespread. In Palafox’s study, mannitol relieved approximately 75 percent of these symptoms.

One wicked aspect of ciguatera poisoning is its duration. The acute illness can last up to six weeks, with mild but annoying symptoms lingering for years.

The best way to avoid ciguatera poisoning is to avoid eating reef fish.

If you do get sick, however, go to an emergency room, even if it’s days later. You’ll likely be treated with mannitol.