5. Poisonous Fish

Chapter 3: The Central, South Pacific and Australia
Part 3: The French Cover-up in Polynesia

After the sun has colored the ocean a brilliant red and begun to sink beyond the horizon, the fishing boats of Papeete drift one by one into port for the night. Their catches are unloaded and taken to the nearby market, where eager buyers are waiting. The most popular delicacy is yellowfin tuna, and those over eighteen inches in length are sold out within half an hour.

Fish is the main source of protein for Polynesians, featuring prominently on the menu of every restaurant in Tahiti. However, for an increasing number of people in recent years, the enjoyment of eating fish has been marred by nausea, diarrhea, and itching which may continue for days or, in the worst cases, years.

Dr. Tilman Ruff of Melbourne's Monash University told us that the symptoms indicated a type of fish poisoning known as ciguatera. Ruff, a lecturer in social and preventive medicine, has been interested in fish poisoning ever since a friend in the antinuclear movement told him about the effects of bomb testing in Polynesia three years ago.

Eating fish containing this poison generally causes nausea and other acute symptoms, including miscarriages or stillbirths in pregnant women. If the itching persists for an extended period the nervous system may be affected, resulting in death.

Ruff sees radiation from nuclear testing as an important factor in the recent prevalence of this illness, and showed us a paper he had written supporting his theory which was published in the January 1989 edition of a British medical journal. According to the statistics he had gathered, there were a hundred known cases of ciguatera poisoning in 1960. The number began to increase toward the end of that decade, coinciding with the start of French atmospheric testing in the South Pacific, and peaked in 1973 when fourteen hundred cases were recorded. From 1974 onward there was a slight decrease, and at present the number of cases is steady with approximately one thousand annually.

When a further analysis of the data is carried out according to region, the results are even more startling. The Gambier Islands, downwind from the test site, show the highest incidence of fish poisoning, the rate of which is 45.4 times the level of the Society Islands, which include Tahiti. The Tuamotu Islands, which include Moruroa, have a rate 3.4 times that of Tahiti, but Ruff attributes this relatively low figure to French warnings not to eat fish caught in this area. Ruff has suggested that radioactive fallout and waste material leaking into the ocean somehow cause a change in the ecosystem of coral which in turn causes a complex series of factors to combine to change the structure of some of the plankton, making it poisonous. Fish eat this plankton; the poison accumulates in their bodies and finally the fish is eaten by a human who then becomes ill with food poisoning.

"If we can just pin down the poison that is the culprit and work out how it gets into the fish's system, I'm pretty sure that the connection with radioactive contamination will become clear," he told us confidently. "If France were to disclose detailed information about radiation leakage and the rate of fish poisoning, I'm sure we'd find that the situation is even worse than we'd imagined."