Friday, July 29, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 15: Seafood Poisoning

Seafood poisoning provides a wealth of plots for mystery writers. Naturally poisonous seafood can often lead to death, so a carefully planned murder can easily be blamed on accident.

Gonyaulax as a murder weapon?
Plus there are lots of varied and unusual kinds of poisonings—and seafood contamination is growing with climate change.

Good for mystery writers. Not so good for seafood lovers.

Red Tide Algae

Actually, red tides aren't always red and aren't tidal. They are dangerous blooms of toxic algae that poison shellfish and the predators—including humans—who dine on the shellfish, especially mollusks.

Toxic algae blooms of various sorts have increased in recent years with climate change, so deaths of marine mammals and humans from eating seafood are increasing, making it difficult to prove intentional murder when a person dies after ingesting "bad seafood."

The "Red Tide"
In Shirley S. Allen's mystery, Academic Body, a professor is studying one of the species of algae that causes the red tide, the dinoflagellate gonyaulax, which turns out to make a handy murder weapon.

Dinoflagellates are one-celled organisms that have both plant and animal characteristics, so they're sometimes placed in a phylum of their own rather than with the algae. When the water warms, like with the recent El Nino, it brings a rich nutrient supply from deep ocean and the dinoflagellates get so dense, they overpopulate. That's when they can turn the seawater red by day and phosphorescent at night. (But some dinoflagellates can poison water without turning it red.) 

Domoic Acid

An especially intriguing toxin found in the algae/dinoflagellate blooms is domoic acid, first isolated in red algae in 1959. It is a neurotoxin that inhibits neurochemical processes, causing short-term memory loss, brain damage, and, in severe cases, death.

Were "The Birds" poisoned with domoic acid?
Unfortunately, domoic acid is a heat resistant and very stable toxin, so it isn't destroyed by normal cooking methods or freezing. There is also no known antidote, so if you want your character to survive, then them to a hospital asap.

Animals can behave strangely when they have eaten seafood contaminated with domoic acid. About a decade ago a bunch of brown pelicans flew directly into car windshields on the Pacific Coast Highway. They were found to be poisoned with domoic acid. Just this week, a friend told me a seal was found disoriented on a local beach, moving as if it were swimming in the water. Domoic acid from a nearby red tide bloom was the suspected culprit.

There was also a famous incident in Santa Cruz, California in August of 1961, believed to be caused by domoic acid. The town was invaded by what people described as "chaotic seabirds" who attacked people for no apparent reason. Although Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds was losely based on a 1952  Daphne Du Maurier Story set in Cornwall, the California incident gave a bit of horrific credibility to Hitchcock’s film which came out in 1962

More recently, domoic acid was used to poison a witness in the TV series Elementary, episode The Red Team.

Pufferfish (Fugu)

Sushi is always good for a nice poisoning. There's always a little fear that things might not be right with the refrigeration or if you really want to get nasty, there's…puffer fish, which the Japanese call fugu.

The super-toxic poison in puffer fish is tetrodotoxin. It's 1200 times more lethal than cyanide. There's enough of the stuff in one pufferfish to kill 30 humans. 
Its poison is 1200 times more lethal than cyanide

Hey, that's a lot of bad boyfriends your villainess could wreak her revenge upon.

It's pretty amazing that people eat this stuff on purpose. Apparently about five people a year make it their last meal, even though it takes two years to be certified to prepare it.

It's not a very nice death. Like domoic acid, it's a neurotoxin, so it starts with the tingling, then the paralysis, and then you get slowly zombified, but you're aware the whole time. Not a great way to go.

The poison is manufactured in the fish's body by bacteria they ingest from their environment, like the toxins in the poison dart frog. So scientists have been working on a way to raise the fish in a bacteria-free environment so they don't produce any of the poison.

But apparently the safe fish isn't anywhere near as appealing to the fugu-loving public, in spite of the fact it apparently tastes the same. Somehow that element of danger is what gives it the flavor they crave.

What about you? Any good seafood poisoning stories? Have you ever eaten a Pufferfish?

Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series


by Dr. Shirley S. Allen, Anne's mom


Retired Broadway director Paul Godwin longs for the life of a college professor, but can he woo his famous actress wife away from the New York stage to become part of his academic life in small-town Maine? 

Not easily, especially after the dean accuses him of having a fling with a student. When said dean is found dead, Paul becomes a prime suspect. Paul's efforts to discover the real culprit provoke dangerous reprisals, but he must succeed to save his new career, his marriage...and perhaps his life.

Academic Body is only 99c or the equivalent at all the Amazons, Kobo, iTunes, and Nook


  1. Loved the part about the birds since the Hitchcock movie is one of my favorites. I didn't know this had literally happened to birds. Fascinating. Thank you.

    1. Patricia--I didn't know it either! Demented seagulls would be really scary. I love doing the research for these posts. So much fascinating stuff out there.

  2. No wonder the Japanese call it fugu. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

    1. Ruth--Hahaha!! Yeah, I guess that's exactly what it does. :-)

  3. Hi, Anne. I love checking into both of your blogs. I really like this one.

    I can see why you like to do research for these posts. Extremely fascinating. Demoic - I thought is that supposed to be Demonic :)

    BTW I have sort of given up WordPress. I'm back to Blogger/friends. I like your template here so much that I took it too - and kept looking here for how did Anne do this? I put in a few twists, but I really do like the red. I've published 2 posts so far.

    And finally...I can afford 99 cents :) for Academic Body - if I haven't already bought it. Can't remember if I did but I'll soon find out. And I promise to leave a review when I finish it - though at my age I don't anymore give a time frame -- haha

    1. Ann--So many people mispronounce that "demonic" acid" because it makes people act as if they are "possessed."

      I'm glad to hear you're not the only one who likes good old Blogger. WordPress is great for people who want a monetized blog, but an author blog isn't about making money. It's about making friends. And Blogger is fast and easy and user-friendly.

      It will be very kind if you can write a review of my mother's book. Her spirit will know and appreciate, I'm sure. :-) And she's in a place where time is not an issue.

    2. I meant "I'm not the only one who likes good old Blogger."

    3. My daughter's looking forward to that "place where time is not an issue." And so am I. :) :) Yes, back to Blogger. You definitely aren't the only one.