The Key West Mystique

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Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

smalltooth sawfish

Dead sawfish and spinning fish | Can I eat that grouper sandwich?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Any kid with a goldfish knows that when Goldy swims belly up things have gone awry. Could be a swim bladder disorder, an out-of-control algae bloom, too much food or lack of oxygen in the water, but it likely means a bathroom funeral is in the offing.

So what happens in Key West and the Florida Keys when dead sawfish and spinning fish show up by the dozens? Can I still eat local fish?

In late 2023 a handful of fish in the Lower Florida Keys were spotted swimming upside down. Soon after, boaters saw schools of fish whirling and swirling erratically. Then came 16 confirmed dead and almost 40 unconfirmed dead smalltooth sawfish. The smalltooth, the only sawfish species found in Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys, has been on the endangered species list since 2003.

Over the months since the first official report on Nov. 7, 2023, reports of spinning fish and dead sawfish to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and the Lower Keys Guides Association indicate things most definitely have gone awry in one of the world’s largest, most lucrative fish bowls.

Scientists from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of South Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast University are collaborating to find answers. Florida House Rep. Jim Mooney has asked the legislature for a $2 million research appropriation. The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and the Lower Keys Guides Association are also participating in the studies.

Definitive answers to the two most pressing questions — what’s causing this and is it safe to eat locally caught fish — are unlikely to come quickly. Barring a eureka moment, researchers are left with a time-intensive process of elimination along the lines of “If not this, then that. If not that, then what.”

Let’s do a round of what-we-know and what-we-don’t know.

Key West Island News

What we know: Dead sawfish but it’s not red tide

  • About 25 species of fish have exhibited odd behavior: silver mullet, tarpon, permit, snook, pinfish, bigeye scad, ballyhoo, jack crevalle, yellow jack, blue runner, southern stingray, mutton snapper, mangrove snapper, cubera snapper, lane snapper, leatherjacket, yellowfin mojarra, scaled sardine, toadfish, goliath grouper, blue striped grunt, redfish, lemon shark, Atlantic sharpnose, smalltooth sawfish and spadefish.
  • Most of the odd behavior is occurring from Bogie Channel in Big Pine southwestward to Key West, although there have been three similar reports from near Miami, north of Biscayne National Park.
  • Viruses, parasites and organ abnormalities in sampled fish have been eliminated so far as potential causes.
  • Red tide, the harmful algae bloom that plagues Florida waters farther north, was not found in surface-water samples and there was no common contaminant among the tested sites.
  • Elevated concentrations of gambierdiscus algae, which can introduce ciguatoxin in fish and potentially cause ciguatera poisoning in humans who eat those fish, were found. Scientists are focusing current research on this, and it’s important to remember we don’t know if there’s a connection.
  • Ciguatera is most commonly found in stressed environments like the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, where our barrier reef has fallen to excessive nutrients, overgrowth of algae and record-shattering warm water from climate change.

What we don’t know: Can I eat local fish?

  • Is it safe to eat locally caught fish? No one can answer this definitively. Ciguatera poisoning was first formally identified in the 1500s and upwards of at least 50,000 people annually suffer from its gastrointestinal ill effects, like nausea and vomiting. Though it is rarely fatal, symptoms can last for months, including the strange sensation of feeling hot as cold and cold as hot.
  • Would I eat local fish right now? Yes, though I’d stay away from the heads and eggs, since toxins tend to settle there. I’d probably go easy on fatty fish, like tuna, for similar reasons. And, I’d keep my daily consumption to about eight ounces. In short, if I want the grouper sandwich, I’m going for it. You do you, of course.
  • We don’t know if the sawfish deaths and the weird fish are connected.
  • We don’t know the economic impact, though it’s hard to underestimate the devastating blow to the Keys’ multi-billion-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry if there were a headline saying “Don’t eat the fish.”

Could this be that canary-in-the-coal-mine warning that we have finally killed our offshore waters? Yes. If that’s true, is there a way to fix it? No. We’re simply going to have to wait for the researchers to complete their work. Waiting is hard. Speculation is easy. Deep breath.

(Editor’s Note: Featured photograph of smalltooth sawfish courtesy of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.)

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1 Comment

  1. Buford

    Based on my own research, running and managing an island off of key west, dealing with the red tide, sugars in the water, temps, overfishing… etc… everything is impacting this such as warmer temps helping the algae to grow, sugars from the plants dumping their waist helping the algae to grow, poop in the water, overfishing making the reefs “immune systems” weak and more susceptible to these problems not being able to fight them off like a disease…. So what can we do? Help change the factories practices of dumping their waist in the lake/rivers/oceans so there is less food for the algae. Have the factories help pay the fishermen for “not fishing” for a couple years to bring back the marine life and strengthen our reefs, put ice in the water to cool it down 👍😊😂…. Out of the scientists I have talked to that took samples of my beach, they said every year there is more and more harmful algae because of the sugars and warmth. In shallow spots the algae sucks the oxygen out of the water. It also poisons the fish. It’s a huge problems not only for the reef ecosystem but also for the Keys communities and I would like to have definite answers in order to stop the harmful human behavior and see the local populations get compensated for these ecosystems to be shut down to regrow for a couple years. We are negatively impacting these areas and need to regulate them more or the fishermen won’t have any fish to catch. In Costa Rica the heat is also contributing to the lack of fish there. Local fishermen are having a hard time catching fish since their small shore boats can’t go out far enough to drop a deep line to where the cooler temps are that the fish are now staying in. We should adapt but in a good way. Take some pressure off these ecosystems and start eating locally for a while (locally helps to not overfish a fish since you can only get that fish when you travel to the place. Also better fishing practices like no dredging, long lining, exc… the world is heating up


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