Tag Archives: weke

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.

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.