We are what we eat
Though fish and seafood appear to be a healthy choice, how healthy are they? Fish is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, good for the brain and the heart. However, consumers, particularly pregnant women, are cautioned against eating fish with a long lifespan and other marine species such as turtle or dolphin. Since the sea is now our toilet bowl and these long lived animals hang out in our contaminated waters, they end up storing natural and man-made toxins and pollutants in their bodies which we then eat. Unfortunately cooking does not destroy many of these toxins which can cause organ, nerve and brain damage. Doctors warn mothers against eating species such as tuna, king fish, mackerel, sword fish and marlin during pregnancy because of these potential health risks.
"But I eat fish and seafood all the time", you say, "and I feel fine. Is it bad for me, or not?"
_One professional who can provide some clarity regarding the health of our aquatic compatriots and their watery world is Dr. Carla Phillips. The talented Dr. Phillips is a lecturer at the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine (UWI-SVM). She is a Vet (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) and also holds a PhD in Marine Mammal Medicine and Aquatic Animal Health from the University of Florida. She is a Dr2.
One of the many roles Veterinarians fill is as guardians in the public health arena. We are responsible for production and herd medicine that focuses on the health and welfare of the animals we eat. If our food supply is not healthy, we humans are certainly at risk. The SVM is keenly aware of this link between human health, animal health and environmental health. Under Dr. Phillips’ guidance and direction, the SVM has set up an Aquatic Animal Health Unit with many ambitious aims, one of which is to help ensure that the species that make it to our tables are produced and handled safely, without deleterious effects to man, animals or the environment.
School of Veterinary Medicine's Fish Hospital and Aquatic Health Diagnostic Lab
Given the global decline in the world’s wild fisheries stemming from crashing fish populations, our wild fish stocks cannot sustain us at the rate we consume. Aquaculture is one of the alternatives that offers some hope to ensure that we can feed ourselves. Aquaculture is the farming of marine or freshwater aquatic species such as fish, shellfish, and even aquatic plants. Successful ‘aquafarms’ can be as small as a backyard setup just big enough to feed your family, or they can be multi-million dollar enterprises that intensively rear aquatic organisms for commercial distribution. The aquaculture industry in T&T has been developing for many years. However, dwindling marine resources, food safety concerns, and a resurgence of public interest in growing our own food have resulted in an increased interest in aquaculture production techniques.
Although it sounds like a great alternative to wild-caught fish, aquaculture can have a host of undesirable effects such as disease outbreaks, abuse of medication, environmental degradation, welfare concerns and unintended effects on wild populations. Dr. Phillips and her team are working with other individuals and organisations to provide standards and guidelines for the farming of aquatic organisms, especially as it pertains to human and animal health. These will encourage more sustainable practices in the industry. Through the Fish Hospital and the Diagnostic Lab, Dr. Phillips is well equipped to advise, diagnose and respond to potentially devastating problems at fish farms. Farmers and interested people can soon visit the demonstration aquaponics unit at the SVM to see a best practice model.
Your Goldfish needs a Vet too
The Fish Hospital is not just for food species. Many people keep fish in an aquarium. Sure Bubbles the goldfish may not be able to fetch sticks or wag his tail when you come home, but they do make nice pets. Pet fish (called ornamentals) such as guppies and goldfish that are sold and traded in the aquarium industry are also attended to. Dr. Phillips points out that the health, treatment and management of fish is misunderstood and neglected in Trinidad and Tobago. Many owners know very little about issues such as unregulated medication sold in pet stores, diseases of fish and proper care and management of aquarium fish. Before you decide to flush Bubbles down the sewer because he’s swimming on his side, or if he is eating like a horse but still appears way too thin and you can’t figure out why, you can take him to the Fish Hospital.
Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research
Dr. Phillips’ work also spans across to marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, and to sea turtles including our Leatherbacks. Not much is known about the majestic marine mammals in our waters and not a lot of research has been done on them locally. Dr. Phillips has medical and surgical skills working with wild and captive species of whales, dolphins and sea turtles. She is currently working on several research projects that are increasing our knowledge and understanding of these creatures. Two of her ongoing projects delve into the world of our elusive local manatee (Trichechus m. manatus) and into the health of the Leatherbacks nesting at Grande Riviere beach. Her research will assist in helping conservationists and officials make informed decisions regarding the survival of these beloved species. Dr. Phillips’ unique skills and talent are needed now more than ever. The recent deaths of dolphins in Tobago (Charlotteville and Dead Bay) raise concerns about the health of these animals and remind us of the many threats they face such as seismic activity, pollution, trawling and boating accidents.
In our world of emptying nets and potentially toxic fish, skilled veterinarians like Dr. Phillips fill a critical role in understanding the complexities of our connections to this living world. They help us keep our food, our pets, our loved ones and ourselves healthy and happy.
Healthy, Happy Animals - Healthy, Happy Communities