News has emerged of how climate change is causing the much-prized and lethally poisonous pufferfish the Fugu, to interbreed with sibling species, creating a hybrid that could put Japanese diners at risk.
The fugu has been prized as a delicacy in Japan for thousands of years, partly because of its unique properties as an ingredient, but also because the fish contains a toxin tetrodotoxin that is more powerful than cyanide and lethal if ingested by humans, which means it’s a risky meal.
The Setouchi region in Japan is home to the only fugu wholesale market in the country where the fish sells for as much as ¥30,000 ($265) a kilo. Local chefs train for between two to three years to learn how to gut the fish properly so that it is safe to eat, a practice known as “migaki”. Only then can they be licensed to prepare the fish. In the past, many people have died of poisoning from the fish but due to stringent regulations that number has depleted to around six per year. Last year, when a Gamagori supermarket sold fugu that had not been detoxified, the town used a missile alarm to warn residents.
The strict control over the capture, sale and preparation of fugu is now being put at risk because warming waters around Japan force the pufferfish northwards in search of cooler water. This causes them to meet sibling species and interbreed, creating a hybrid Fugu. These hybrids can be difficult to distinguish from other fish, so Japan forbids the catch and trade of them. Today, Setouchi fishermen are having to throw more and more of their catch overboard.
The fish is not inherently poisonous, but it feeds on certain shellfish that are, and the fish then stores the poison in its skin, ovaries and particularly its liver. If the poison is ingested, it attacks the nervous system affecting muscle control and the lungs. Death is almost certain 1-24 hours unless the patient can be quickly supported with an artificial breathing apparatus. There is no known antidote to the Fugu poison.
Despite the risks associated with the pufferfish, fugu remains highly prised and Japan can’t seem to get enough of it. It is served in many different ways such as sashimi, deep-fried Fugu kara-age, tetchiri stew or fugu-fin sake. It is especially sought after during the holiday periods. It remains to be seen if the influx of hybrid fugu will affect the demand. It is unlikely however, even when the fish was banned in the 16th century by samurai general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, peasants continued to eat the fish in secret, with many dying of poisoning as a result. Fugu has been eaten in Japan for thousands of years, they are unlikely to start shunning it now.