Tag Archives: goatfish

Hallucinations from toxin in fish are rare but potent

Published July 23, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Bandtail goatfish, or weke pueo (sometimes called weke pahulu), are among the fish that can cause hallucinatory fish poisoning. ©2016 Susan Scott

Bandtail goatfish, or weke pueo (sometimes called weke pahulu), are among the fish that can cause hallucinatory fish poisoning. ©2016 Susan Scott

A Kentucky man emailed that he was doing research on nightmare weke and wondered whether I knew of recent cases here. Because I hadn’t written about this odd illness, also called hallucinatory fish poisoning, for years, I wondered, too.

The term nightmare weke makes it sound as if only goatfish carry this poison. But the rare toxin, origin unknown, is found throughout tropical and temperate waters. Other culprits include convict tangs (manini), chubs (nenue), mullets (ama), coral groupers and rabbitfish (the latter two not found in Hawaii).

In the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, the common food fish saupe, or sea bream, has caused hallucinatory fish poisoning. In Arabic the sea bream is known as “the fish that makes dreams.”

Reunion Islanders (Indian Ocean) call a rabbitfish “the fish that inebriates.” Hawaiians named the sometimes hallucinatory bandtail goatfish weke pahulu, meaning “king of ghosts.”

“Ghost” is putting it mildly. The visions that afflict people who eat affected fish are so dreadful, I get the creeps reading about them.

In 1994 a 40-year-old executive ate sea bream in Cannes, France. Severe vomiting that night caused the man to shorten his vacation and drive home. Soon he started hearing animals screaming and stopped when giant insects surrounded the car. After 36 hours in the hospital (with sedation, I hope), the man was fine.

Another Frenchman in 2002 ate sea bream he bought from a fish market. Because he was 90 and feared people would declare him senile, the man suffered terrifying hallucinations of humans screaming and birds shrieking. When the visions disappeared he reported the incident.

These report dates from a poison center in Marseilles show that the toxin is rare in France. It’s rare in Hawaii, too. From 1990 to 2014 the number of cases reported to the Department of Health was 17, the last one in 2011.

The unidentified toxin occurs in both carnivores and algae-eaters, usually in summer. Cooking doesn’t inactivate the poison, which seems to be concentrated in the head. One Hawaii blog offers good advice to mullet and goatfish fishers: “No eat da head.”

In a 1960 medical journal, researchers wrote that information about this syndrome was being suppressed because “Russia was exceedingly interested in nerve drugs such as this.”

I learned that my emailer’s research was not a scientific study as I thought. Rather, he was gathering material for a New York friend making a film about substances in nature that get people high.

You know it’s a crazy world when people consider poisoning themselves and others with a fish.

Report hallucinatory fish poisonings to the state Department of Health. Save the fish for testing.

Yellowstripe goatfish use spiky beard to detect prey

Published September 14, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
©2015 Susan Scott

Weke are yellowstripe goatfish; when they are under 7 inches long, like the fish shown here, they’re oama. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Weke are yellowstripe goatfish; when they are under 7 inches long,
like the fish shown here, they’re oama. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

At my favorite snorkeling spot recently, I found a line of anglers blocking my usual beach entrance. I hadn’t seen them there before but I recognized the scene. In August and September, it’s common around the islands to see men, women and children fishing near one another with short poles in knee-deep water, white buckets waiting on the beach. Years ago, I didn’t know what this configuration meant so I asked an angler who explained that they were fishing for oama.

“My wife fries them up,” he said. “Delicious.”

Besides being good eating, the man told me that some anglers use oama as bait for papio.

“What are oama?” I asked.

“Baby weke,” he said.

Papio are the young of members of the jack (ulua) family and weke are yellowstripe goatfish. When weke are under 7 inches long, they’re oama.

Ten species of goatfish of various Hawaiian names swim in Hawaii’s waters. All are bottomfish that cruise the ocean floor poking two stiff chin whiskers into the sand and sediment. When the fish finds a shrimp, crab, worm or snail, it shoves its snout in the sand to nab it.

Goatfish are experts at finding the goodies because taste buds cover the wiggly extensions, which apparently reminded someone of a goat’s beard. Jacks and wrasses sometimes take advantage of the goatfish’s hunting tools and tag along, hoping to filch a flushed prey.

Weke are familiar to us snorkelers because these 14-inch-long fish like to forage in shallow water. The buttery yellow stripe running down the cream-colored body makes yellowstripe goatfish hard to spot at first, but when hunting, the fish blow their cover. The busy whiskers, called barbels, leave puffs of sediment in their wake.

Male goatfish also flutter their barbels to court females. (Look! I can waggle my whiskers!) When not eating or dating, goatfish tuck their goatees out of sight under their chins.

Weke spawn at the edge of the reef and the resulting young hatch at sea. In late summer, the youngsters return to the reef, often hanging together by the hundreds.

Because I couldn’t politely get past the dozen or so oama fishers standing at my snorkeling spot, and didn’t want to risk getting hooked, I walked down the beach and entered there.


And whoa! There beyond the sand, tucked into the corner of two coral heads, hung a thousand resting oama, maybe more. Their yellow-striped bodies shimmered in the morning sun and they moved in that beautiful fluid synchrony of schooling fish.

I hope they made a run for it.


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

©2015 Susan Scott


Summer warmth, long days spawn an abundance of fry


An inch-long Hawaiian green lion fish. ©2014 Susan Scott

Two friends, former Hawaii residents, visited from Oakland last week, and we hit all of Oahu’s hot spots. Hot spots for fish watching, that is. Wild night life for us was watching TV until 10.

We snorkeled, among other places, at Shark’s Cove, Hanauma Bay, Kahe Point (nicknamed Electric Point after the power plant there) and Lani­kai’s outer reef.

The first two sites are marine sanctuaries, and the last two are not, but you don’t need signs to know that. All you have to do is get in the water. In the protected areas the fish barely move to get out of snorkelers’ paths, and some species, such as nenue (chubs), swim so close it’s hard to get a focused photo.

This kind of tameness is a learned behavior called habituation. After repeated encounters with humans where nothing bad happened, animals stop fearing us.

In areas where netting and spearing are allowed, however, the fish view us as predators, dashing for cover at the approach of a swimmer.

Even with this marked contrast in fish behavior between protected and unprotected spots, my friends and I noticed that all four places had one notable thing in common: Hawaii’s warm summer waters and long daylight hours have stimulated a baby boom.

So many colorful little fish swarmed the coral heads, it felt like we were swimming in a bowl of goldfish crackers. Butterflyfish, damselfish, tangs, cardinal fish, trumpet fish, moray eels, goatfish — all in perfect miniature. I even saw an inch-long Hawaiian green lion fish, a tiny flying gurnard and a baby scorpionfish wolf down a baby surgeonfish.

gurnard gurnard
A tiny flying gurnard & with fin for size reference. © Susan Scott
Click for larger image

In one place, white specks dotted the water like dust motes in the afternoon sun. When I reached out to touch one, it darted away. The specks were fish or invertebrates in larval form.

Exceptions are common, but in general tropical reef fish go through three stages before adulthood: embryo, larva and juvenile.

Embryos depend entirely on the mother for nourishment, either in the yolk of the egg she produced or by a placentalike connection. When an embryo breaks free it’s called a larva (plural larvae), defined as a creature able to catch its own food.

And I mean creature. Most fish larvae have huge eyes, and each species has its own special structures (whips, spikes, feathery filaments) for respiration and locomotion. Larvae, therefore, don’t usually resemble the fish they will become, but look more like space aliens in goggles.

Larvae dart around to eat and avoid being eaten, but they can’t swim against currents. This inability to get around on their own is the definition of plankton, Greek for “wanderer.”

Both fish eggs and larvae are a huge part of the ocean’s plankton. In the next transformation, larvae become juveniles. With some exceptions, such as the parrotfish and wrasses that change color dramatically as they grow, juvenile reef fish look like minuscule adults.

The lucky ones we saw had made it to shelter on the reef. The lucky of those will make it to adulthood to start the cycle all over again.

These hot summer months are a great time to check out Hawaii’s underwater nurseries. It’s as much fun as finding Nemo.

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

©2014 Susan Scott

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.