Monthly Archives: March 2013

Some aquatic worm species pack painful toxins in sting

Published March 25, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A bearded fireworm. Used under the Wikimedia Commons liscense. More information:

“I was badly stung as the worms managed to get into my swimsuit. I ended up with a burning welt across my stomach and fell quite ill,” she wrote. Gerrie still bears the scars, and wonders whether others have had the same experience from what she calls palolo worms.

I don’t think Gerrie was stung by the Pacific island delicacy known as the palolo worm, but instead tangled with a species of fireworm. My reasoning: It’s not the bodies of palolo worms that swarm near the surface.It’s their edible sex organs, and those don’t sting.

Palolo worms and fireworms both belong to a class of marine worms called polychetes which contains 5,300 species.Every segment of every polychete body contains a pair of paddlelike appendages, one on each side.

Sedentary polychetes use their paddle feet to hang on to the insides of their tube homes. Other polychetes, such as palolo worms and fireworms, walk on their flat feet at night in search of crustaceans, snails and other worms to eat. During the day, the roamers rest under rocks and in crevices.

Fireworms get their own family among polychetes, because of the bristly bundles that extend, like tiny whisk brooms, from the end of each foot. Fireworms’ other name is bristleworms.

Some fireworms can extend and retract their bristles. When extended, the worm looks like a cute caterpillar — but don’t be tempted to take it home. Those bristles are barbed and filled with poison.

Bright colors advertise some fireworms’ presence, but the pretty hues are warnings. Fish don’t eat fireworms, nor should people touch them. The sharp bristles easily puncture and break off in skin, introducing the toxin that gives fireworms their name.

Palolo worms are not in the fireworm family, nor are the wiggly parts that swarm (and that people eat). These are the worm’s sex organs, developed once a year as long, narrow appendages full of sperm in males and eggs in females. (I wonder whether they taste different.)

The reproductive organs break off from the body eight or nine days after October’s or November’s full moon.Bearing tiny eye spots, the sex appendages reach the surface in pre-dawn darkness, burst open and do their job of making baby worms. The palolo worm’s body remains on the ocean floor.

Many other polychetes, including fireworms, swim to the ocean’s surface to release their sperm and eggs, each species swarming at a precise time of year.

Although Gerrie’s October timing was right for palolo, it’s likely that, by bad luck, she ran into fireworms going about their annual reproductive frenzy.

No specific antidote or diagnostic test exists for fireworm stings. In most victims, after a few days of a rash or sometimes blisters, the injury heals on its own.

Soon I’ll be sailing to, and swimming in, South Pacific waters. I’m hoping that if I have a close encounter of the wormy kind, I’ll be luckier than Gerrie.

Fireworm Mating from Lutfu Tanrıover on Vimeo.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Baffled by which fish to eat, peanut butter sandwich wins

Published March 18, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

LA CRUZ DE HUANACAXTALE, Nayarit, Mexico >> I’m back in Mexico, where for the past year I’ve moored my 37-foot ketch, Honu. While taking a break from boat work last week,
I walked to the fishers’ side of the marina. Anglers keep about 70 small fishing boats on commercial piers there, and most were in from the previous night’s fishing.

Each boat held men in orange overalls, hundreds of stainless-steel hooks lined up on rods, piles of monofilament lines and nets, and to float them, objects from chunks of foam to bleach bottles to soda containers.


For half an hour, I watched fisher after fisher unload crate after crate from boat after boat. Red snappers, green mahi­mahi, silver tunas, brown groupers and countless other species rolled past me, all glistening on ice in the morning sun.

My first instinct was of good food,
and I moved to the dockside market to get my share. But as I watched the men
clean the fish, my science side stopped me.

The scene, which represents only one
small community, goes on daily through­out the world.How long can fishing
with the aid of GPS, fish sounders, engines, nylon, steel and plastic continue
before these boats come back empty? Will my purchase contribute to the current
decline of the oceans’ fish stocks?

How many people would go hungry and be out of work, though, if we stopped buying fish?

There seemed little chance of that. Other
shoppers, eager to get the best of the catch, pushed past me. In that crowd,
would buying one little piece of snapper make a difference?

The two sides of my brain fought to a standstill.

We know that the oceans are overfished and that anglers are now taking fish too small to have reproduced. Some stocks already have collapsed, and warnings from biologists predict more crashes are coming.

Yet health experts urge us to eat more fish.

But don’t buy certain farmed fish, say
researchers who study the negative effects of marine aquaculture. And if a
package says the product comes from a sustainable fishery, beware. Whether
a fishery is sustainable depends on whom you ask.

What’s a person to do?

For guidance, the best source I have found is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website, Seafood Watch, which also comes as a smartphone app(Android, iOS). The site keeps up to date on the latest studies, fishing politics and aquaculture practices. A section called “Seafood Recommendations” explains what to buy or avoid, and why, and offers ocean-friendly alternatives.

The guide isn’t a perfect solution because fish sellers, grocers and restaurateurs don’t always know where their fish came from. Even so, using Seafood Watch as a buying guide makes me feel that I’m doing my part.As the Monterey Bay Aquarium writes on its site, informed consumers can help turn the tide.

Fish for sale at the fish market in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. ©2013 Susan Scott

Fish for sale at the fish market in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. ©2013 Susan Scott

At the fish market I had my eye on the red snappers. Avoid that species, says Seafood Watch. It’s being overfished in the Gulf of Mexico.Here on the Pacific Coast? I don’t know.

I left the fish market empty-handed, walked back to my boat and made a peanut butter sandwich.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Portuguese man-of-wars run aground in high wind

Published March 11, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A Portuguese man-of-war blown onto a beach. ©2013 Susan Scott

My walk down the length of Kailua Beach on a recent blustery day brought back memories of another windy day there in 1983. Marine animals were new to me at the time and every day at the beach felt like Christmas.

“Look, I found something amazing,” I said to Craig one afternoon, showing him my treasure. Between thumb and forefinger I held a transparent bubble 2 inches long topped with a pink ruffle. A fringe encircled the bubble like a blue tutu, and below that, fluttering in the breeze, hung the creature’s tail.

Craig, a seasoned ocean-goer, laughed.

“It’s called a Portuguese man-of-war, and that’s no tail. It’s a stinging tentacle. It’s probably not a good idea to carry it around.”

I didn’t carry it for long. I put it in a bucket of seawater. Afloat, the creature came alive, slowly extending its tentacle into the water as if sighing with relief.

I couldn’t wait to get home and learn more about this strange creature with the odd name, and I’ve been learning about them ever since.

Fortunately for me, the balloon part of the stinging Portuguese man-of-war, a jelly­fish relative, is safe to touch. It’s this smooth transparent sac, containing mostly carbon monoxide, that enables the animal to float on the ocean’s surface.


Along the length of the float lies a blue or pink crest. During periods of calm weather, the crest flattens and the animal drifts with the current. But when the wind blows, the creature sets sail, raising its crest to cruise at a 45-degree angle to the wind. In this way, the Portuguese man-of-war, named after 16th-century battleships, trawls for fish.

Stinging cells line the tentacles (some individuals have more than one) that trail beneath the animal’s float. Acting like tiny harpoons, the cells shoot a paralyzing toxin into the prey. Once a fish is immobilized, the tentacles draw it up to the creature’s mouth, also located under the float.

Normally, Portuguese man-of-wars float offshore throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical waters. We see them, and sometimes feel the pain of their stings, when the wind overpowers their tiny sails and the animals get blown into our bays and onto our beaches.

As a fellow sailor, I feel a tinge of sadness when I find these little anglers lying on a beach. The last thing in the world Portuguese man-of-wars want is to be blown off course and shipwrecked.

Craig was right about handling them, though. It’s not a good idea, because even when these creatures are beached, their tentacles retain the ability to sting.

I don’t carry Portuguese man-of-wars around anymore (usually). But I still see them as amazing gifts from the sea.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Lacking certainty of harm, starfish should not be killed

Published March 4, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Crown-of-thorns starfish. ©2013 Susan Scott