I was fishing for trout in a small stillwater, but all I was catching were bullheads, small freshwater catfish. After releasing five or six of the small brown fish, I became careless and grabbed one around the middle.
One of the spines on their fins stuck into my hand and left a small cut that stung for the rest of the afternoon. We are fortunate, living in Nova Scotia, that there are very few beasts that can sting, bite or poison us.
There are a few fish, however, that have the potential to cause us some harm if handled improperly either while living or when prepared as food. Some species of fish have an assortment of sharp spines in their fins which they use to defend themselves from predators.
The brown bullheads is one example of a freshwater fish whose spines can be locked in position and may inflict a nasty cut. In the sea ocean perch or redfish have a similar type of fin rays. Dogfish not only have a spine in each of their two dorsal fins but they also have poison producing tissue which can release poison into a wound. The poison can produce sharp pain for up to an hour followed by swelling and tenderness that can last for several days.
Some fish can also be poisonous after death. Mackerel and tuna belong to the family of scombrotoxic fishes whose flesh can make you sick if eaten after it has spoiled. The spoiling results from bacteria acting on the dark flesh of these fish. The bacteria produce a chemical, histamine, which can cause headache, diarrhea and vomiting. Make sure the fish you eat are cleaned properly and kept cool will prevent this problem.
Most of the sharks found of our coast have livers which can make you sick if you eat them. Eating livers from these fish may produce mild gastro-intestinal symptoms so it is usually suggested you avoid eating the liver of sharks.
Some fish can make you sick if their blood comes in contact with your mouth, eyes or a cut in your skin. I have a personal interest in blood poisoning that can result from fish blood. My great grandfather, who was fisherman, died in the late 1800's from blood poisoning contracted when he cut his hand when fishing mackerel.
It has also been suggested that the blood of American eels may be poisonous if it enters the body through cuts in the skin although no research has been conducted to confirm this. This assumption is based on the fact that European eels, which are closely related to our eels, do in fact have poisonous blood. If blood from these eels comes in contact with the eyes or mouth swelling and redness can occur.
When handled properly fish won’t cause you any problem and are delicious on the table so just be careful when fishing for the few that can fight back. Most wounds resulting from encounters with fish produce minor wounds and the symptoms will disappear in a few days. If you happen to get cut by a fish some prompt first aid, including washing the wound in hot water will speed healing and you will only be left with a good fish story.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.
©2013 Don MacLean