STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton Fish Eggs: Think Twice Before Eating Eating roe from some fish species is nothing new but some are poisonous and can make you sick Longnose gar and a few other species produce eggs toxic enough to cause great distress in people who eat them. (Keith Sutton photo) If you go fishing in the spring, you’re likely to notice eggs filling the bellies of many fish you catch and clean. March, April and May are months when many species spawn, so females bulging with eggs are common. Nowadays, fish roe usually gets tossed out with the guts and other leavings, but in some areas, anglers still enjoy eating the often delicious sacs of eggs. Shad roe, for example, has long been considered a delicacy. Folks in the South often fry up the roe of bluegills and other sunfish. The eggs of sturgeons and paddlefish make fine, very expensive caviar. Eating fish eggs certainly isn’t a new idea. Roe was relished by ancient Egyptians and other cultures thousands of years ago. The eggs of wild fish commonly were eaten in the U.S. as recently as the mid-20th century. A 1941 press release sent out by the U.S. Department of the Interior encouraged Americans to eat fish roe. “In all civilized countries,” the release said, “the roes of certain fishes are of recognized high quality and classed among the most valuable of fishery products.” During that period, eggs of salmon, sturgeon, whitefish and herring were all canned “for the delectation of American gourmets,” according to the release. They also were promoted as good sources of protein. Not all fish eggs are good for your health, though. In fact, some can be downright dangerous as an Arkansas family learned in April 2010. According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), brothers Darwin and Russell Aaron had gone spearfishing in Greers Ferry Lake in the Ozarks. Among the fish they killed was a single longnose gar. “My husband Darwin heard that gar were good to eat,” Tiffany Aaron told an AGFC reporter. “And we’ve always been a family that’s up for trying anything once.” Mrs. Aaron said Darwin, Russell and her 10-year-old son, Carson, ate the gar and its eggs for supper on the evening of the day they killed it. Nothing about the fish’s eggs made the trio believe they shouldn’t eat them, but around 1:30 a.m., young Carson woke up vomiting. An hour and a half later, Russell was ill, too, and Darwin followed suit at 5 a.m. “Darwin, Russell and Carson were the only ones who had eaten the eggs, so I got online to find out more,” said Mrs. Aaron. “That’s when we found out they were poisonous.” They rushed Carson to a local hospital where he was put under observation, but none of the medical personnel had any knowledge of gar-egg poisoning. “My biggest question was what should we expect or watch for,” said Mrs. Aaron. “But the ER doctors didn’t have any experience with this sort of poisoning, and the Poison Control Center didn’t have any information. The one thing the doctors could tell me is that it was fortunate my son began vomiting as quickly as he did to get the toxins out of his system.” Lee Holt, an AGFC fisheries biologist conducting research on alligator gar, was contacted for information about the type of toxin contained in gar eggs. “I called a lot of gar experts I knew from my research,” he said. “Our main concern was the type of toxin. There was one mention of it possibly being cyanide-based. The doctor at the emergency room explained that treatment for cyanide poisoning can be just as harsh as the toxin, so we needed to make sure before Carson was given any treatments.” Fortunately, Holt was able to determine that the toxin is protein based, not cyanide based, so the punishing treatments could be avoided. All three family members recovered from their stomach-churning ordeal, but the toxin’s effects lingered for three days. A similar incidence of gar-egg poisoning was reported from Louisiana. A man caught and cleaned a 2-foot gar, and his mother-in-law cooked the fish’s eggs and served them to the man and his son. The boy only ate a few spoonfuls mixed with rice, but the man ate half a plate full. “About 3 a.m., I awoke to my son vomiting in the bed,” the man said. “We cleaned him up, but he continued vomiting for an hour or so, followed by dry heaving.” The man’s reaction to the toxin was much more severe than his son’s. At 7 a.m., he began vomiting violently, and during the next three and half hours, he was overcome with severe diarrhea, profuse sweating and a feeling of cold. “At about 10:30 a.m., exhausted and semi-delusional, I staggered to my bed covered in sweat and laid there freezing and – the only way I can explain it – hallucinating … I had just crazy dreams. “I awoke at 3 p.m. feeling a lot better but still kind of off,” he continued, “It was one of the worst sicknesses I’ve ever had. My son was better by the next day, but still was saying his stomach didn’t feel right.” Even today, scientists know very little about toxins in fish eggs, which are properly known as icthyootoxins. The poisonous effects may have evolved to ward off egg predators, but no one knows for sure as little research has been done. Typically, only the fish’s eggs and gonads are poisonous. The musculature and other parts are usually edible. Symptoms commence shortly after someone eats the roe. These may include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever, bitter taste in the mouth, dryness of the mouth, intense thirst, a sensation of constriction of the chest, cold sweats, irregular pulse, low blood pressure, pupil dilation, chills and ringing of the ears. In the most severe cases, patients may experience muscle cramps and paralysis. Some fall into comas. A few die. It is still uncertain whether the toxins are produced by the fish themselves or are ingested by the fish via the food chain. But the presence of the toxins appears to correlate with the reproductive season. Gar are just one type of fish known to have potentially dangerous eggs. Fish from at least 10 other genera have been implicated as well, including certain species of sturgeons, salmon, pike, minnows, catfish, killifish, sculpins and sticklebacks. So while the eggs of the fish you catch may look perfectly safe and delicious, know what you’re getting into before you collect, cook and serve these little morsels. Do some online research before you eat and avoid eggs of gar and other species that are known to be unsafe. Your belly will be glad you did.