Building Local Warning Networks for the Detection and Human Dimension of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in Indonesian Communities
  • Acronym: Ciguatera
  • Term: April 2020 – March 2023
  • Project Science Team Co-Chairs:
    Mitsutaku Makino (Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, The University of Tokyo, Japan)
    Mark Wells (University of Maine, USA)
  • Project Coordinator:
    Alexander Bychkov (PICES)
  • Funding Agency:
    Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) of Japan, through the Fisheries Agency of Japan (JFA)
  • Parent PICES Committee:
    Human Dimensions Committee (HD)
  • Mailing list

Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP) in tropical reef fisheries globally has the greatest human health and economic impacts of any algal-based poisoning syndromes. CFP stems from the human consumption of fish containing toxins produced by benthic microalgae of the genus Gambierdiscus and Fukuyoa, dinoflagellates which are the initial sources of ciguatoxin. Ciguatoxin affects sodium transport channels in an organism by lowering the voltage-gated opening in their cells, thereby altering the nervous system in ways that negatively affect numerous aspects of fish and animal physiology. Ciguatoxin is lipophilic, meaning that it accumulates in fatty tissues and becomes concentrated up the food web. When present at sufficiently high concentrations in raw or cooked fish, ciguatoxin consumption leads to the onset of the major CFP symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, numbness of extremities, mouth and lips, reversal of the sensations of hot and cold, muscle and joint aches – within 1 to 3 hours of ingestion and may last for days, weeks or even months. Impacts of CFP on the human dimension extend far beyond the proximate health and economic outcomes. Chronically impacted communities tend to become fearful of local as well as other fish sources, and they transition from these traditional ways of life to one where all protein is imported from foreign sources.

Although CFP is recognized to occur in pristine environments, its emergence in new regions, and intensification in others, often is associated with anthropogenic pressures. There also is evidence that climate drivers may affect its distribution. Expanding areal extents of dead coral and eel-grass habitats are known to lead to incursions and establishment of exotic populations of toxin-producing benthic algae and increased CFP presence. The primary concerns for local communities are first to identify reef regions where the causative organism is abundant and second, to manage their anthropogenic stressors to minimize increases in its presence.

Indonesia was chosen as a developing Pacific Rim country to implement the project. This country has one of the most extensive coral reef systems in the world on which many of its coastal communities depend upon for its biodiversity and ecological products. However, presently only about 7% of these coral reefs are in excellent condition, whilst more than 35% are in poor condition, mainly due to anthropogenic stressors. This expanse of poor coral health in Indonesia is a relatively new phenomenon, and the human populations living adjacent to the deteriorating corals are not yet fully aware of the consequences of this change. Reports of CFP in Indonesia presently are few, but this almost certainly is due to the difficulty in diagnosis in communities that lack proper training and experience. The methods to measure the presence and abundance of these harmful species are not well developed, and details of the toxin transfer to communities are a challenge to understand both as a biological event and as a social event. This was the rationale for this project “Building Local Warning Networks for the Detection and Human Dimension of Ciguatera Fish Poisoning in Indonesian Communities” (acronym “Ciguatera”), funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) of Japan, through the Fisheries Agency of Japan (JFA), from the Official Development Assistance (ODA) Fund.

The importance of having more effective fisheries management practices is widely recognized in Indonesia, and this leads to support by the government and the willingness of stakeholders to consider new approaches such as development and implementation of a citizen/fisher-based observation system linked with fisheries scientists and managers. The project foundation would be the strong collaboration with the Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) developed over previous PICES/MAFF projects – “Development of the prevention systems for harmful organisms’ expansion in the Pacific Rim” (2007–2012), “Marine ecosystem health and human well-being” (MarWeb; 2012–2017) and “Building capacity for coastal monitoring by local small-scale fishers” (FishGIS; 2017–2020).

The 2017–2020 FishGIS project has led to the development and implementation of smartphone-based tools for fisheries and environmental observations by local small-scale fishers and community members in Indonesia. The new project aims to adapt and further refine these smartphone-based capabilities or measurement and automated reporting, with the addition of benthic toxic algae measurements, to empower Indonesian coastal communities to minimize their CFP exposure in community-scale fisheries.

Project organization and funding

The request to undertake the project was approved by PICES Governing Council in February 2020. The project principles agreed to by MAFF/JFA and PICES can be found here.

The project has strong connections and interactions with, and supports the relevant activities of, the PICES Scientific Committees on Human Dimensions – HD, Marine Environmental Quality – MEQ (through the Ecology of Harmful Algal Blooms in the North PacificS-HAB) and Fishery Science – FIS, PICES Technical Committees on Data Exchange – TCODE and on Monitoring – MONITOR, and the PICES FUTURE Science Program (Forecasting and Understanding Trends, Uncertainty and Responses of North Pacific Marine Ecosystems) Science Program (specifically, Research Theme 3 on “How do human activities affect coastal ecosystems and how are societies affected by changes in these ecosystems?”). The HD Committee is the parent committee for the project.

To direct the project, a Project Science Team (PST) was established by PICES Science Board based on principles and procedures detailed in the PICES Policy for approval and management of special projects (Decision 2017/A/7). All PICES member countries and all the above-mentioned Committees are represented on the PST (see the membership below), co-chaired by Drs. Mitsutaku Makino and Mark Wells. The PST Co-Chairmen are responsible for the detailed planning and execution of the project and annual reporting to MAFF/JFA and to Science Board through the HD Committee.

Dr. Alexander Bychkov was appointed by the PICES Executive Secretary to serve as the Project Coordinator and is responsible for the management of the fund, and for the annual reporting on its disposition to MAFF/JFA and to PICES Finance and Administration Committee.

Annual reports to MAFF/JFA are to be submitted within 90 days after the close of each project year ending March 31. Within PICES, Science Board takes the responsibility for reporting to Governing Council on the progress and achievements of the project, and the Finance and Administration Committee takes the responsibility for reporting to Governing Council on the financial and management aspects of the project.

Funding for Year 1 (FY 2020, ending March 31, 2021) was set at $96,385 CAD. Funding for Year 2 (FY 2021, ending March 31, 2022) was set at $96,385 CAD.

Project goal, strategy and initiatives
The overall goal of the project is to build the capacity of local small-scale fishers and community members to monitor their coastal ecosystems and coastal fisheries. The project’s focus is to detect and monitor Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP) in tropical reef fisheries, which globally has the most significant human health and economic impacts of any algal-based poisoning syndromes. Creating community empowerment will benefit human health in Pacific Rim developing countries. As well, the project will generate transferable knowledge for ocean communities with similar climate or environmental stresses.

The project strategy will comprise an “Assess. Detect. Avoid!” convention to protect communities against this emerging health concern:

  • To Assess the state of the local coral reefs, a common ecosystem for ciguatoxic fish, community members will monitor some aspects of water quality (turbidity and water color) of the reef, and document the outbreaks of eel-grass or the expansion of the dead coral (all factors associated with increased CFP presence) using the smartphone-based tools and approach developed during the FishGIS project.

  • To Detect the presence of the toxin-containing dinoflagellates in the reef environment, two approaches will be used: one that is developed within the project and is based on specialized smartphone-driven microscopes (Foldscopes) and community-appropriate protocols, and the other that employs a detection kit recently created by an international CFP working group (International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); see also FAO and WHO (2020)) to determine the presence of Gambierdiscus and Fukuyoa in the water column and measure their abundance. These two technologies will meld well to help develop predictive indices for reef regions susceptible to CFP.

  • To Avoid the transfer of contaminated fish from the damaged environment to the tables of families, the community will be trained to reduce risk – avoid eating fish from regions where Gambierdiscus and Fukuyoa numbers are high. This simple message will require an investment in socio-ecological scientists – a specialty of the MAFF mandate.

Consistent with the directives of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (UNDOS), the project will focus on three major initiatives:

  1. Coastal ecosystem monitoring activities by local small-scale fishers and other community members to detect ecosystem changes (e.g., changes in water quality and the presence and changes in the spatial distribution of dead coral and eel-grass benthic environments).
  2. Detection of CFP toxin-containing dinoflagellates in the reef environment using smartphone-based observation tools developed during the FishGIS project, and new international standardized sampling protocols for toxic benthic algae.
  3. Training of community members to employ these tools for generating citizen-science data streams to be used in local decision-making on coastal fisheries regions to avoid a health risk associated with fishing until the presence of CFP toxin-containing dinoflagellates is minimized.

These three initiatives will be supported by a series of capacity building workshops led by scientists from PICES member countries. The purpose of the workshops is to work with local communities to increase the sustainability of their fishing resources by providing them with CFP information. It is expected that the combination of training and citizen-science contributions in the project will: (1) generate the needed capacity for monitoring CFP hotspots in Indonesian waters, (2) provide valuable datasets for the study of Gambierdiscus and Fukuyoa and the factors controlling their abundance in reef systems, and (3) increase human wellness by identifying fishing regions where the health of community members is at risk.

In addition to the primary initiatives, early steps will be taken to explore two secondary initiatives: modifying the FishGIS application to incorporate (1) artificial intelligence-based assessment of fish stocks from the collective catch data reported by the local fishers, and (2) a tsunami early warning notification for remote fishing communities, with the goal of laying the foundation for future full development of these capabilities.
Meetings and Events
  • Fourth PST virtual meeting (September 15, 2021)
    Objectives: to discuss the development of the PDM and the PO, with emphasis on the expected inputs from the PST members and from our Indonesian colleagues and on the expected outcomes.

  • Third PST virtual meeting [photo] (August 30, 2021)
    Objectives: (1) to discuss research ethics issues; (2) to review existing/available data on benthic HABs (bHAB) in Indonesia; and (3) to evaluate the developed PDM (ver1) and Plan of Operation (PO; ver1).

  • Second PST virtual meeting [photo] (July 13, 2021)
    Objectives: (1) to review the updates in the FishGIS smartphone application; (2) to discuss the draft PDM and further steps in the development of this framework; and (3) to reassess, and modify if needed, the project implementation planning.

  • First PST virtual meeting [photo] (March 9, 2021)
    Objectives: (1) to review the overall strategy and general directions for the project; (2) to consider and develop timelines for project activities and deliverables; (3) to determine the main elements of the Year 2 workplan; and (4) to initiate the development of a Project Design Matrix (PDM).

  • First Project Science Team (PST) meeting was planned in conjunction with the MSEAS-2020 Symposium, to be held from May 25–29, 2020, in Yokohama, Japan. The meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 health risks.

Project Design Matrix (PDM) and Plan for Operation (PO)
Annual Progress Reports (PR)
PR-Year 1 (April 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021)
PR-Year 2 (April 1, 2021 – March 31, 2022)
Annual Financial Reports (FR)
FR-Year 1 (April 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021)
FR-Year 2 (April 1, 2021 – March 31, 2022)
Media Coverage
Mandalica Post ITI and PICES Plan Ciguatera Research in the Waters of the Three Gilis
SuaraNTB The Governor of NTB Supports the Research of the ITI Research Team in Gili Matra
WartaJakarta Governor of NTB Supports Synergy of Ciguatera Indonesia and PICES
Project Science Team members
Daisuke Ambe
(representing TCODE)
Fisheries Research and Education Agency
2-12-4 Fukuura, Kanazawa-ku
Yokohama, Kanagawa, 236-8648
Seung Ho Baek
South Sea Research Institute
Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology
41 Jangmok-1-gil, Jangmok-myon Geoje, 5320
Republic of Korea
Vladimir Kulik
(representing MONITOR)
Pacific Branch of VNIRO (“TINRO”)
4 Shevchenko Alley
Vladivostok, Primorsky Kray, 690091
Mitsutaku Makino
Project Science Team Co-Chairman
(representing HD)
Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute
The University of Tokyo
5-1-5, Kashiwanoha, Kashiwa-shi, Chiba, 277-8564
Shion Takemura
(representing HD)
Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency
2-12-4 Fukuura, Kanazawa-ku
Yokohama, Kanagawa, 236-8648
Naoki Tojo
(representing FIS)
Faculty of Fisheries Sciences
Hokkaido University
3-1-1, Minato-cho, Hakodate, 041-8611
Vera Trainer
(representing MEQ)
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA
2725 Montlake Blvd. East
Seattle, WA, 98112
Charles Trick
(representing MEQ)
Department of Health and Society
University of Toronto
1265 Military Trail
Toronto, ON, M1C 1A4
Pengbin Wang
Second Institute of Oceanography
Ministry of Natural Resources
36 Baochubei Rd.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang, 310012
People’s Republic of China
Mark Wells
Project Science Team Co-Chairman
(representing MEQ)
School of Marine Sciences
University of Maine
5741 Libby Hall
Orono, ME, 04469
Alexander Bychkov
PICES Secretariat
9860 West Saanich Road
Sidney, BC, V8L 4B2