Toxic puffer fish spotted in Rhode Island waters

Smooth puffer fish, although more common from Bermuda to Argentina, are becoming an annual visitor to New England, which poses a problem to anglers because of their deadly neurotoxins.

State environmental officials are cautioning fishermen in Rhode Island about this member of the puffer family because it is a serious threat to their health if not properly cleaned. This smooth puffer is native to the western Atlantic and belongs to the family Tetraodontidae, which comprises about 120 species. The substances in this fish that are responsible for illness and death are tetrodotoxin and saxitoxin, which adversely affect the central nervous system. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these toxins are deadlier than cyanide and there are no antidotes. These toxins, moreover, cannot be killed by freezing or cooking the fish.

Toxins can be found in the organs, intestines and skin of the smooth puffer. Fishermen who catch a smooth puffer should take this fish off the hook carefully and release it. They should not be used for bait or chum, the agency said.

Usually entirely gray to olive-gray, smooth puffer fish are darker above than below, and their sides are somewhat silvery. The body is entirely unscaled except for the prickly belly and underside of the head. It inhabits over sand or mud bottoms.

In contrast, the northern puffer fish usually features blackish green spots and saddles with a yellow to white belly. It has tiny jet-black pepper spots scattered over most of the pigmented surface. Lower sides of the body have a row of black, elongate, bar-like markings. The northern puffer is a club-shaped fish that puffs up into a ball in self-defense.

Unlike many pufferfish species, the flesh of the northern puffer is not poisonous. There are scientists, however, who believe there are low-level toxins in the skin and organs. It is commonly found in the ocean surrounding Rhode Island. People are advised to thoroughly clean the northern puffer of all skin and viscera before eating.