Professional fishermen know and recognize the various specimen of fish they catch in their work. This knowledge has been passed on from father to son
over many generations, from time immemorial. Thus, accidental stingings from venomous spinous fish or other hazards in professional fishermen is relatively
quite rare. On the other hand, stings with such fish are more commonly encountered in coastal areas by amateur rod fishermen, sub-aqua enthusiasts, swimmers and divers in general.
They are, by and large, the most common medical casualties in this field, encountered especially in the warm summer months.
Being a doctor, and living in the fishing village of St. Paul's Bay in the Republic of Malta, has stimulated my research and observations over the years into this rather unusual but quite real problem.
This is more so in view of the fact that there is poor coverage, or hardly any, in the standard medical textbooks about this subject. Referring to any such textbooks, one can usually find quite a good coverage on medical poisonous
problems encountered by land creatures like snakes, scorpions, spiders. However hardly any reference is found of similar poisonous afflictions which might be caused by sea creatures.
My first aim in this small pictorial booklet is to enable one to get a quick visual recognition of hazardous fish in our sea. The principles of management and treatment will also be discussed. These guidelines have been observed and researched
over the years in my medical career and through treatment might in the main seem empirical, it has in my experience yielded very satisfactory results. As the saying goes, 'half a loaf is better than no bread at all!'
(Weevers and Stargazers -Figs 1 & 2)
1. Tachinus vipera, Cuv.
This Fish reaches a total length of 10 to 20 cms. The orbital margin is spineless and of a yellow-brown colour and it has white abdomen.
The caudal fin is edged black. The first dorsal fin is also black and contains five venomous spines. An opercular and venomous spine is also
found at each side of the gill covers. (fig.1e)
Synonymous names: English - lesser or little weever and adder pike. Maltese - stracna, tracna lixxa, Italian - trachino vipera.
2. Tachinus vipera, Cuv.
The length is from 20 to 40 cms. Two spines are present in the superior margin. The first dorsal ray has thirty sections and the abdominal rays amount to thirty four. The colour
is brown yellow and the fish is obliquely lined with either brown, black or green / blue strokes. The abdomen is pale white.
Synonymous names: English - Greater weever. Maltese - sawt. Italian - trachino dragone.
3. Tachinus lineatus, Delar.
Length from 20 to 40 cms. There are two spines on the orbital margin. The first dorsal ray is coloured black and again has six poisonous spines. It has one venomous spine on each
operculum. The second dorsal has twenty five rays and the abdominal has 27 or 28 thus distinguishable from the Trachinus draco. The colour is
black / yellow or brown / yellow. It is adorned with black blotches which congregate in groups on the lateral line. The head is red/brown or purplish/brown. Abdomen white.
Synonymous names: English - streaked weever, Maltese - tracna tal-fond. Italian - trachino raggiato.
4. Tachinus araneus, Cuv.
The length is from 20 to 50 cms. There are two spines on orbital margin. The first dorsal has seven spines which are venomous and connected with a black integument. There is one prominent
poisonous spine on each opercular gill cover. The colour at the dorsum is dark red / grey speckled with black. The flank is grey / yellow adorned with 6 to 7 rounded black blotches. The abdomen is yellowish / white.
Medical Casualty occurance
The weevers live in sandy sea bottoms or muddy shores.
They spawn in the hot summer months, when they bury themselves in the sand or mudsurf, leaving erected the black first dorsal ray equipped with the venomous spines well visibly exposed.
When the fish is disturbed, such as when accidentally treaded upon they become aggressive and defend themselves by stinging the unwary intruder with their needle sharp spines. On rare
occasions as well, they are known to have actually attacked swimmers, harpoonists, snorklers. The araneus species can be found in water even 100 metres in depth. The smaller weevers tend to come
inshore and can be found in water only a few inches deep. They can be caught by rod-fishermen, but more commonly by the various netting methods and trawlings. Harpooning a weever constitutes a real hazard, as the injured fish becomes very aggressive and its removal
from the spear is rather tricky and difficult as regards avoiding self injury.
The Trachinidae remain alive out of sea for quite a long time and one has to remember that their spines remain poisonous even after the fish dies. It is therefore quite a usual practice for the spines to be cut and removed by fishermen or fishmongers as a precaution both to themselves
and to their customers.(The geographical distribution of weevers can be seen in figure 14.) The culinary food value of weever and commensibility is quite good.
Uranoscopus scaber, Linn.(Fig.2)
English name - stargazer, Maltese - zondu, Italian - pesce prete.
The head of this fish is very robust and cuboid in shape. The fish is not laterally compressed but tapers at the tail and has a rather flat white abdomen. The eys are conspicuosly on top of the head (looking at the stars!), hence its scientific name. The big mouth cleft is virtually vertical.
There is one spine on the dorsal aspect of each operculum. The first dorsal is small, black and spinless. The second dorsal has 14 to 15 rays. Its colour is small, black and spineless. The second dorsal has 14 to 15 rays. Its colour is dark / brown or blackish with yellow / grey or brown / grey flanks. The length reached
is about 15 to 25 cms. Its habitat is muddy sandy sea bottoms and it can be found at depths up to 100 metres. Its culinary food value is rather discrete.
This fish takes a very long time to die when out of the sea even after many hours in a refrigerator. Practically all the Maltese fishermen I have interviewed told me that its spines are non-venomous. However, most authoritative books I have checked say that the spines are venomous, thus it is perhaps the ones around the Maltese shores that are non-venomous. In view of the fact that it belongs to the weever family I feel that these fish should always be handled with care as it is always better for one to be safe than sorry.
Scorpoena porcus, Linn.(Fig.3)
This small-scaled scorpion fish possesses over 60 very minute scales on the lateral line. Above each eye there is a developed tentacle. The second to fifth dorsal spines are nearly equal and the abdominal ray is as long as the second dorsal or even slightly longer.
The colour is bright / grey and blotched heavily and irregularly with black. The abdomen is greyish. The length is from 15 to 25 cms.
Synonymous names: English - small-scales scorpion fish. Maltese - scorfna sewda. Italian - scorpena nera.
Scorpoena scrofa, Linn.(Fig.4)
This fish is known as the large-scaled scorpion fish because it has up to 45 large scales on the lateral line. The head is proportionally quite big. The third spine of the ventral anal fin is longer than the third. The colour varies from bright red to reddish / brown.
The dorsal rays often show black blotches and it is these spines which usually contain the integumentary venom spinal glands. They have to be handled with extreme case. Their size varies between 25 and 50 cms.
Synonymous names: English - large-scaled scorpion fish. Maltese - cippullazza. Italian - scorfano rosso.
Scorpoena ustulata, Lowe.
This fish is very similar to Scorpoena porcus but it is rather smaller in size, 10 to 15 cms. It is of a reddish colour. The orbital tentacles are reduced or completely wanting. The fourth spine of the dorsal ray is longer than the rest.
Synonymous names: English - lesser red scorpion fish. Maltese - skorfnott. Italian - scorfanotto.
Helicolenus dactylopterus, Delar.
This fish looks very musch like the comber fish (serranus cabrilla). The head is however scaly and lacks
the quadrangular depression in the occiput which is characteristic of the scorpion fishes already dealt with
above. It is red in colour, and lives in deep waters of about 200 to 500 metres. The maximum length reached is
between 20 and 30 cms.
Synonymous names: English - blue mouth. Maltese - skorfna ta' l-ghajn. Italian - scorfano bastardo.
Medical casualty management.
The principles of treatment for both weevers and scorpion fishes is quite the same and therefore will be dealt with at this stage. These consist of:
a) Alleviation of pain.
b) Counteracting allergic manifestations, and
c) Prevention of secondary infections.
One has first to explain that as sonn as he is stung, the victim experiences a sharp prick-like sensation which immediately starts increasing in severity-totally unlike
a prick say with an ordinary sewing needle. The pain moreover starts spreading proximally along the limb.
In the same way as allergic stings, a red swelling appears in the area involved. Dependingon the amount of poison delivered by the fish, general manifestation can also
occur in the form of rapid pulse beat, sweating, general malaise and even collapse. At times pain is also felt across the chest - reminescent of heart pain. It is known
that the poison is toxic both to the heart muscles and to the nervous tissues. To alleviate pain quickly one can inject 2 ml of 2% pain lignocaine immediately on the puncture wound and infiltrate around it.
Allergic manifestations are dealt with the usual antihistaminic drugs such as Piriton, Phenerghan and Tavegyl, to give a few examples.
In my experience the injection of lignocaine has always given immediate relief,
which is long lasting. The patient is encouraged to walk and take full normal activities.
Cleaning the area with acriflavine and spirit beforehand and applying a simple elastoplast dressing helps to prevent secondary infection.
a further course of antihistamies in tablet form for five days helps to counteract the allergic swellings. If the allergy is very pronounced corticosteroids should also be considered. It is obvious that such treatment should be done
under the supervision of a qualified physician.
Fig. 6 - The plantar aspect of foot is a common site of accidental stinging by a weever
A great many species of rays are harmless apart from their excessive size which might even capsize a small boat. A few species of rays are however equipped on their tail with stinging spines, hence the name stingray.
Other rays are equipped with electric organs able to emit a shock of a momentary nature but of a quite considerable potency.
Dasyatis pastinaca, Linn.
This fish is nearly quadranglar in shape, in front it is pointed and posteriorly more round, here it tapers into a tail which is as long as the whole body. The tail is equipped in its middle aspect with a prominent serrated poisonous spine. Its skin is
smooth and of a dark / green colour or even near black on its dorsum, whilst wadling in the shallow surf. (See figure 7a)
Synonymous names: English - stingray. Maltese - boll or bonn. Italian - pastinaca.
Fig. 7a - Accidental stingings by small stingrays usually occur in the ankle area.
The word olocefalous is derived from the Greek, 'olos' meaning all and 'kefali' meaning head, thus 'all head'.
Like the rays, this fish has a long tapering tail. It lives in very deep waters and thus is very rarely caught. It is easily distinguishable, and can grow to a length of just over one metre. It has on its first dorsal ray a very prominent spine. Though
very rarely caught, it is hardly sold in fish markets as it does not have a nice taste. Its liver and roes however are said to be quite reasonably commestible.
Synonymous names: English - rabbit fish. Maltese - fenek il-bahar. Italian - chimera.
Muraena helena, Linn.
Being long and snake-like, this fish is easily distinguishable. It has a shiny black skin which is speckled prominently with golden / yellow large spots. These are at times also coloured greenish or white. When disturbed, it becomes ferocious. Its mouth is equipped with many sharp teeth and when it bites it does not easily let go. It can grow up to one or two metres. Its blood when fresh can produce toxic symptoms both in animals and human beings. Its bite can also produce toxic manifestations and can take quite a few days to heal. When cooked up to 75 degrees Celcius the toxin looses its poisonous properties. It is quite a delicious fish to eat when cooked. When caught alive fishermen treat it with utmost care. They kill it quickly with a decisive blow to its head to concuss and exterminate it, thus avoiding its vicious bite.
Synonymous names: English - moray eel. Maltese - morina or murina. Italian - murena.
Sphyraena sphyraena, Linn.
The barracuda's body is elongated. Its mouth is equipped with very sharp teeth, having the lower jaw longer than the upper. The length of the adult Mediterranean species varies between half to one metre. Its second dorsal and anal fins are practically equal in size. Its colour varies from black to dark / green with a lighter coloured silvery abdomen. They are shaol fish and when large in number they are known to have attacked swimmers. When sighted in a large number swimmers are well advised to stay off the water.
Synonymous names: English - mediterranean barracuda. Maltese - Lizz. Italian - luccio marino.
NON COMMESTIBLE FISH
Legocephalus legocephalus, Linn.
This unique puffer fish of the Mediterranean is not edible. It is however at times adulterated and sold as a weever but can easily be distinguished. This is due to the fact that it has a very small mouth.
The first dorsal ray though black is rather small and lacks spines. It has no opercular spines either. The second dorsal and tail rays are small and nearly rudimentary. I have encountered local expert fishmongers who bought deep frozen consignments of this fish with the false pretext that they were weever fishes.
Tetraodonton fish poisoning.
Like all types of fish poisioning the symptoms start a few hours after ingestion and include a peppery taste in the mouth, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoe, sweating, weakness and collapse. Treatment, on the whole is symptomatic as there is no known antidote.
Practically everybody knows what a shark looks like. This is due to the various books, films and television serials featuring them.Actual mishaps from human eating types are rare and one can hardly find any real authenticated case recorded with actual proof. One would think that they wisely prefer to consume the more abundant fish in the sea rather than human flesh!
However, it is always wise not to disturb or provoke them. Furthermore it is generally said that sharks can smell blood from long distances and if hungry they might be enticed to draw near and have a bite. My advice to sub-acqua enthusiats has always been to surface as soon as possible if one cuts himself with a knife or accidentally grazes his skin against rock ect. The same advice would be directed to menstruating women in the sense that it is better to avoid swimming or diving in known shark areas.
The man-eating sharts in the mediterranean include:
1. Hexanchus griseus, Linn.
English - six-gilled shark. Maltese - Murruna. Italian - notidano capoiatto.
2. Hexanchus cinereus, Linn.
English - seven-gilled shark. Maltese - murruna. Italian - anciolo.
3. Odontaspis taurus, Raf.
English - sand shark. Maltese - kelb il-bahar or tawru. Italian - cagnaccio or carcaria feroce.
4. Odontaspis feroc, Agass.
English - firch shark. Maltese - silfjun or kelb selvagg. Italian - carcaria feroce.
5. Isurus oxyrinchus, Raf.
English - mako shark. Maltese - pixxitondu. Italian - squalo nasuto.
6. Lamna nasus, Bonn.
English - porbeagle. Maltese - pixxiplamtu. Italian - squalo nasuto or smeriglio.
7. Alopias vulpinus, Bonn.
English - thresher shark. Maltese - budemb or pixxivolpi. Italian - codalunga or pesce volpe.
8. Prionace glauca, Linn.
English - blue shark. Maltese - Huta kahla. Italian - Verdesca.
9. Sphyrnazygaena, Linn.
English - hammer-head shark. Maltese - kurazza or pixximartell. Italian - pesce martello or balestra.
AND FURTHER READING
Fig. 14 - Map showing the geographical distribution of weever fishes. The lesser and greater species are the ones found in British water.