Report on Investigation of Poisonous and Venomous Fishes at Palmyra Island

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Report on Investigation of Poisonous and Venomous Fishes at Palmyra Island


During the late 1940's and early 1950's, reports of fish poisoning from around the line islands and central Pacific became rampant. Scores of previously edible fish were now causing severe illness, and in some cases death. The Navy, acknowledging many of these reports came from areas where they had established bases of operation during WW2, sent a team to investigate.

Palmyra was chosen as the ideal location for studying and collecting samples, and for 2 months a small team lived and worked there, aided by the caretaker at the time, Otto Hornung, who also assisted the Navy during the WW2 occupation.

This detailed documented covers the types of fish collected and the work done, as well as details of their stay.


Bruce Halstead



School of Tropical and Preventive Medicine




Public Domain



Text Item Type Metadata


To: Head, Biology Branch 6 May 1953

Office of Naval Research
Deportoent of the Navy
Washington 25, D.C.

From: Bruce W. Halstead, M.D.. Project Director
School of Tropical and Preventive Medicine
College of Medical Evangelists
Loma Linda, California

Subj: report on investigation of Poisonous and venomous fishes at Palmyra Island, Line Islands, during 13 April to 2 May 1953


The northern Line Islands, which comprise Kingman Reef, Palmyra, Wash-
ington, Fanning and Chrismas Islands, represent one of the most interesting
poisonous fish areas in the tropical Pacific. Prior to 19149 fishes in the
Line Islands, with the exception of puffers, were edible. Large nuabers of
red snapper were formerly shipped fron Palmyra Island and sold in the Honolulu
markets. Then in 1943 the first of a series of outbreaks were reported from
eating Palmyra red snappers. During the winter of 1944 there were two differ-
ent outbreaks involving thirty-eight cases of fish poisoning which occurred
in Honolulu from eating sea bass that had been shipped in from Christmas and
Midway Islands. Between February 1946 and April 1947 there were ninty-five
cases of fish poisoning which occurred at Fanning Island from eating rockcod,
porapano, surgeonfish, red snapper, carrotfish and mullet. The interesting
thing about this latter outbreak was that the victims had eaten the same
species of fishes which they had always eaten. Strange as this phenomenon
might appear the story had been checked and rechecked on a number of differ-
ent occasions and has been adequately documented as a scientific fact. Since
1957 there have been numerous outbreaks among both native and transient pop-
ulations in the northern Line Islands. At the present time the reef fishes
of the northern Line Islands are not permitted to be sold on a commercial
basis in the Territory of Hawaii.

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During the latter part of 1950 a small collection of fishes which
had been collected by the Pacific Fishery Investigations, US. Fish and
Wildlife Service, in the Line Islands were shipped to us for analysis.

Some of these fishes were found to be toxic. Then during 4 January to
6 March 1951, Mr. Kenneth Groves of our staff conducted a field investi-
gation in the Line Islands. The trip was sponsored by the Office of Naval
Research and the Pacific Oceanic Fishery Investigations. The material
obtained fron the 1951 trip was screened and again toxic fishes were found.

In revising this material it was felt that a larger collection of fishes
should be obtained from the Line Island and that a more thorough survey
should be conducted on one of the islands which would be representative of
the group. Palmyra was selected on the basis that it was an American posess-
ion and has been the center of a nusber of epidemics. The survey was made
during the month of April since the fishes would be in the midst of their
reproductive period and the toxicity in certain species would be at the

Because Palnyra is uninhabited, except for the caretaker, Mt. Otto
Hornung, it was necessary for us to transport our food, collecting equipment,
boat, outboard motor, gasoline and reefer facilities. All of these facilities
were supplied through the cooperative efforts of the Armed Forces.

The scientific party consisted of Norman C. Bunker, Donald 0. Ollis,
Leonard S. Kuninobu, F. Douglas Horton, Robert L. Saith and Bruce V. Halstead.



…By car to Lockheed Air Terminal, Burbank, California. Fron
Burbank to San Francisco via United Air Line flight 45l at 0730.
Arrived San Francisco airport 0930, where an Air Force carryall


took us to Travis Air Force Base.

14 Apr 53: DEPARTED TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, 1030, on flight P-266/1b
15 Apr 53: DEPARTED HONOLULU 1533, aboard Coast Guard Craft Buttonwood, enroute for Palmyra Island.
20 Apr 53: Went ashore with personal luggage and some of the lighter equip-
ment. Set up base of operations in old boat house where fresh
running water and electricity were available.
21 Apr 53: Buttonwood entered lagoon, tied up at dock and deposited the rest of our equipment.
22 Apr to 29 Apr 53: General Collecting operations carried out.
1 May 53: DEPARTED HICKMAN FIELD 1900 on flight 255-06.
DEPARTED TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE 1220 via base operations flight
to Norton Air Force Base, San Bernardino, Calif. Transportation
by carryall was provided to Loma Linda.


Palayre Island (05° 52’ N., 102° 06' W., H. 0. Charts 5736 and 1839) is
a coral atoll which was discovered in 1802 by the American ship Palmyra. It
was taken as a possession by the United States in 1898 as a part of the
Territory of Hawaii. During the years that followed the island passed through
various hands until the title was finally acquired by Leslie end Ellen Ful-
lard-Leo of Honolulu in 1922. In 1939 the United States Navy began construc-
ting a defense base on Palmyra. During World War II the base was expanded.


Later the Civil Assrensuticr AiSs&itlrfcrction leased the island for making
meteorogical observations. Finally, in about 1951 the island was turned
back to the Fullard-Leo family.

The atoll consists of many small islets lying on a barrier reef which
lies in the east and west direction. Originally the atoll consisted of about
50 islets, having a total area of about 250 acres, in a horse shoe
surrounding three lagoons which are known as West. Center and East lagoons.
During the occupation by the Navy most of the islets were connected by
causeways. The islets stand at an elevation of about 6 feet above sea level
and are densely covered by vegetation. The islets ere scattered over an
area of about 5 1/2 miles east and west by 1 1/2 miles north and south. The larg-
est islet is Cooper Island, having an area of about 16 acres and is located
on the northern side of the atoll.

The West Lagoon is deep, up to 200 feet in places, providing large anchor-
age areas and an adequate turning basin. A dredged channel that leads through
the barrier reef on the southwestern side of the atoll is the only boat
entrance to the lagoon. The depth at the entrance to the channel is about
20 feet. Along the southern shore of Cooper Island, in the West Lagoon is
a boat house, a dock for large vessels, re-fueling pier and a seaplane
ramp. A 6000 foot air craft landing strip and numerous buildings which are
in various stages of deterioration are also located on Cooper Island. The
remaining perimeter of the West Lagoon is comprised largely of shoal reef
area which is sons cases is completely out of water during low tide. The
Central Lagoon is connected to the West Lagoon by a shallow channel, about
10 feet in depth, which has been dredged between the two lagoons. The Central
Lagoon is adequate for small boat navigation, attaining a maximum depth of
about 15 fathoms. Ths Central Lagoon is separated from the East lagoon by a

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narrow causeway which serves as a ??? between the northern and southern
sides of the island. The East Lagoon has a maximum depth of about 23 fathoms
but for the most part is surrounded by shallow reef areas. There are two
or three small openings to the ocean along the northern and eastern ends of
the East lagoon.

The barrier reef is about 8 miles long in the east and west direction,
extending about 1 1/2 miles eastward of Portsmouth Point. Extending eastward
for a distance of about 3 miles from Portsmouth Point is a coral bank with
depths of about 4 to 6 fathoms. A sunken reef extends about 1 mile westward
of the western extremity of the barrier reef at the western end of the atoll.
On the northern and southern sides the atoll is almost steep-to, the 100
fathom curve generally being within 1,000 yards of the barrier reef. From
the air it will be seen that the barrier reef is interrupted along its entire
perimeter with innumerable snail surge channels.

The weather at Palymra is very unfavorable. Rain squalls are sudden and
frequent. The average annual rainfall varies from about 100 to 180 inches.
The uncertainty of the weather presents a difficult problea in attempting to
develop a collecting schedule. The humidity is high but not to the extent
of being disagreeable. The temperature at the time we were at the Island
hovered around 30° C during the warmer part of the day. Since the northeast
trades prevail with an average velocity of about 10 to 12 knots living at
Palmyra is quite unfavorable. A tropical ?? hovers in the ?? of
the Island because of the meeting of the northeast and southeast trades.

The turbidity of the water within the lagoon at Palmyra varies consider-
ably depending upon the general climactic conditions at the time. However,
for the most port the water within the lagoon is murky and undesirable for
Aqua-lung work. The best areas to work in were found to be at the western

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end of the Atoll. The area immediately southwest of Sand Island was excellent
for making underwater observations. The water temperature averaged about
28 C. The tides are at higher water, full and change at 5 hours 03 minutes.
Spring tides rise to a height of 2.4 feet.

The vegetation at Palmyra is dense. Most of the coconut palms were
originally introduced but are now growing abundantly and propagating themselves.
Puks, tree heliotrope, pandanus, naupaka, hoeli, ferns, herbs and vines
flourish. The island has a unique insect fauna. Hermit crabs, and large
land crabs are exceedingly numerous. Coconut crabs are present but not in
large numbers, There is the usual variety of oceanic birds present.


Station #1 - It was in this area where the C.G.C. Buttonwood anchored before
unloading our equipment from the boat. The crew of the boat
thoroughly covered this area by line fishing. Water depth was
about 10 fathoms with probably a sandy bottom. The water was
slightly murky. Small amounts of brown and green algae floated
on the surface. Hook and line fishing in this area yielded
lerge numbers of red snappers and small sand sharks. Water
temperature 28° C.

Station #2 - Shallow reef areas on West Lagoon side of Strawn Island. Reef
and shore of coral sand and rocks. Some small, dead coral hoods.
No live coral observed. Green and brown algae along shore with
slight growths on underwater rocks. Water temperature 28° C.

Station #3 - Shallow wster passage way between ocean and East lagoon. Water
depth one to four feet. Bottom predominantly of coral rocks
and sand with same ooze. Steady current with charging tide.
Large quantities of attached and floating green and brown algae.

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Station #4 - Off shore of small island N. of Sand Inland. Shore of coral
rocks, boulders and a small amount of sand. Small anount of
algal growth. Bottom sandy at point of capture. Water temper-
ature 23° C.

Station #5 — Shallow reef area northwest of West Lagoon. Depth of water
at mean high tide 2 to 4 feet. Bottom of sand and coral rock
patches. Small amount of green and brown algae. Water temper-
ature 29° C.

Station #6 - Shallow reef area on south side of Strawn Island. Conditions
as in Station #5. Water temperature 32° C.

Station #7 - Tide pool on Strawn Island of approximately ten foot radius at
low tide. Depth of water to three feet. Bottom of thick ooze.
Very small amount of algae. Water temperature 32° C.

Station #8 - Reef shell southwest of Strawn Island. Depth of water 2 to 5
fathoms. Small amount of live coral and algae on edge of reef.
Bottom sandy. Floating green and brown algae. Water temper-
ature 23° C.

Station #9 - Reef area, western end of atoll. Water 2 to 6 feet deep. Many
dead coral heads. Small amount of live coral. Bottom composed
of patches of sand, oose and rocks. Snail mounts of green and
brown algae. Water tempera ture 28° C.

Station #10- Boat house slip. Water 10 to 12 feet deep. Steel filings and
metal wreckage with algal growth. Bottom predominantly sand.
Water temperature 23° C.

Station #11- Shallow reef area north of Home Island, West Lagoon, 2 to 4
feet of water. A few small coral heads. Bottom of sand and
rocks. Small amount of green and brown algae. Water temper-
cture 23° C.

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Station #12- Edge of shallow reef of Home Island, West Lagoon. Depth
of water 2 to 10 feet. Bottom of rocks with some sand. Slight
growth of algae. Shore of dead coral heads and boulders.
Fairly strong current. Water temperature 27° C.

Station #13- Northside of Strawn Island. Conditions similar to station
5 with 6 to 12 inches of water.

Station #14- Northeast corner of Center Lagoon. Water depth 1 to 4 feet.
Bottom of sand and ooze with scattered rocks and boulders.
Some green and brown algae. Shore of sand and coral rocks.
Water temperature 29° C.

Station #15- Reef edge in East Lagoon. 3 to 4 fathoms deep. Reef edge
of coral boulders. Great deal of floating algae. Bottom of

Station #16- Near entrance of Center lagoon. Water depth approximately
20 feet. Bottom of coral sand. Shore of sand and rocks.
Slight growth of algae. Water very murky. Water temperature
28° C.

Station #17- About 1 mile southeast of Sand Island. Depth about 7 fathoms.
Bottom probably sand with scattered rocks. No obvious vege-
tation. Water temperature 28° C.

Station #18- About 500 meters west of Sand Island in channel. Water depth
2 to 4 fathoms. Bottom of coral sand, boulders, and live
coral. Water very clear. No obvious vegetation. Water
temperature 23° C.

Station #19- Shallow area near center of West Lagoon. Bottom of coral
sand with some rocks. Water depth 2 to 3 fathoms. Water
murky. No obvious plant growth. Water temperature 28° C.


Station #20- Northern tip of Sand Island at old pier. Water depth to
15 feet. Bottom of sand with scattered rocks and boulders.
Slight growth of brown and green algae. Water murky with
some current. No live coral. Water tesrercture 28° C.

Station 21#- Coral shoal area, southwest of Sand Island. Depth of water to
20 foot. Bottom varies in different areas from sand with dead
coral heads to complete covering of live coral. Srsall growth
of algae. Concentrated population of fishes in various places.
Water very clear except on outgoing tide when there is quite
a strong current which brings murky water from lagoon. Conditions
excellent for spearing and photography. Red snapper, parrotfish
eels, pompano and other reef fisher were abundant in this area.
Water temperature 28° C.

Station #22- Shallow reef area east of Papeli Island. Shore of sand, bottom
of predominantly dead coral, slight growth of preen and brown
algae. Water depth 1 to 4 feet. Water tenperrture ?6° C.

Station #2- Shallow reef 100 meters east of Bird Island. Shore of dead coral.
Bottom of coral sand with some heads of deed or live coral. Some
growth of microscopic algae. Water temperature 28° C.

This survey was probably the most complete field study that we have made
to date. Adequate personnel, collecting equipment, reefer facilities, plus
the cumulative effects of past experiences were the primary contributing
factors in making the survey a successful one.

Fishes at Palmyra were abundant both in number and variety. Palmyra
has the largest red snapper population of any area that we have studied thus
for. The red snapper of Palmyra are notoriously toxic and the material


collected should provide an adequate amount of the poison for future food
chain studies. Three species of red snapper were found to be almost equally
abundant, lutjanus bobar, L. vaigiensis and L. gibbus. The young of L. vaig-
iensis were exceedingly common in the lagoon but the adults were to be found
only on the outside and especially at the eastern end of the atoll. Snappers
were readily taken by either hook and line or dynamite. Moray eels were
plentiful but consisted largely of about three species, Oymnothorax pictus,
O. javanicus and what appeared to be O. favimarginatus. The most satis-
factory method of collecting moray was to go out on the reef during a low
tide at night. With the use of a Coleman lantern and a trident spear large
numbers of morays were captured in this manner. 0. javanicus seems to prefer
deeper water and is best captured with an arbalete. Since moray have been
the cause of a number of fatal intoxications elsewhere the moray eel popula-
tion must be looked upon with suspicion until mouse tests demonstrate that
they are safe to eat. Three species of puffers were observed, Arothron
hispidus, A. maleagris and A. migropunctatus. Arothron hispidus was very
common, A. migropunctatus was only occasionally seen and only a single specimen
of A. migropunctatus was seen swimming in the shoal area at the west end of
the atoll. Special effort was wade to collect a large representative series
of puffers. Strange to say not a single specimen of any of the sharp-nosed
puffers was observed during the entire trip. Puffers are most easily collect-
ed by native spear. The parrotfishes art common and present in a great var-
iety of species. Most of the parrots are considered to be edible by Mr. Otto
Hornung, the resident agent at Palmya, who claims to eat them whenever he
gets the opportunity. Parrots are best captured by arbalete. The shoel reef
area at the western and of the atoll provides excellent parrotfish collecting
for night-light spearfishing. ??? triostagus and numerous other

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species of surgeonfishes were exceedingly abundant. Particular attention was
directed toward obtaining a large collection of A. triostagus from various
different ecological areas at Palmyra since this was the species which had
caused the outbreak of ichthyosarcotoxism at Maui, T.H., on February 28,
1951 which involved 29 persons. Moreover, the A. triostegus had been imported
fron Palmyra. Large samples of algae were collected from the same areas in
which the manini, A. triostegus, were observed feeding. This material will
be need in the forth-coming food chain experiments. Mr. Hornung was uncertain
as to the edibility of most of the surgeonfiehsa. There are at least two
species of mullet, Mugil app., which inhabit the lagoon. All of the mullet
are said to be edible. Surmullet or goatfishes ere common. Mulloidichthys
app. are considered to be non-toxic but Paruponsus app must be held under
suspicion until further studies here been completed. Goatflshes were most
easily captured by dynamite. Ulua or pompano, Caranx app., are readily taken
by trolling with spoons or feathers. The white uloa is commonly eaten and
is a very fine food fish. However, the black ulua, probably Caranx melampy-
gus, is considered to be toxic and reported to have caused a number of serious
intoxications in the past. A number of specimens and species of white ulua
were taken but despite every effort to capture the dark species we failed
to obtain a single specimen. Three or four small, and two large specimens of the
dark species were observed swimming about 500 yards west of Sand Island. The
snout of the black ulua is concave in profile rather than convex as is the
case of the white species. The coloration of the dark species during life
is from a dark gray to almost black, both dorsally and ventrelly, making a
striking contrast to the other species. Groupers, Serranus app., Cephalopholis
argua, etc., were common and a large representative series were taken. Labrids
did not appear to be very plentiful and only a few species were obtained.

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Triggerfishes surprisingly enough were not present in large numbers, either
in species or specimens. A few large specimens of Balistes flavinarginatus
were observed swimming in some of the shallow areas of the lagoon but only
a single small specimen was captured. Lethrinids were relatively common
both in and outside of the lagoon and an excellent series was obtained by
hook and line and dynamite. Two excellent specimens of Variolo louti, sea-
base, were taken by dynamite. Sigenids were present but not abundant. Pomo-
centrids were present bat not as abundant as in the Marianas. A fair series
of Abudefduf app. were captured by spear end dynamite. In general the col-
lecting was excellent and a total of about 1200 pounds of fishes were taken.
Numerous photographs, kodachrome transperencies, black and white and
underwater movies were taken by Mr. Donald C. Ollie, our photographer. The
underwater movies should prove to be of considerable help in making food chain
studies. We used a 16mm Eestman Cine Special which was housed in s Special
underwater case that was designed and manufactured by Mr. Norman C. Bunker
of our staff.


Very shortly after capture all specimens were placed in the reefer and
quick frozen. The fishes were then transferred to plastic bags and packed in
wooden boxes for shipnent. Storage temperatures ranged fron about 10 to 15° F.
The boxes of specimen acconparled our ataff on the return MATS flight to
Honolulu. Thanks to Lieutenant Buchband arrangements had been previously
made to provide us with dry ice for the return flight so the fishes remained
frozen during transit. Upon arrival in Honolulu ths specimens were immed-
iately transferred to the Kilpatrick Cold Storage Plant. According to pre-
sent plans the fishes are to be shipped to Can rrenciaco Port of Embarkation
via MSTS and then to Loma Linds via the Naval Supply Depot in Oakland. Arrange


ments for the return shipment are being handled by the Office of Naval Research
in Pasadena.


1. Consideration should be given toward obtaining a 12 to 144 foot
fiberglass boat and a 10 horsepower Johnson outboard motor equipped wlth an
inboard gas tank. A wooden boat is unsatisfactory for working around coral
reefs. The gunnels of the boat should be equipped with a hand rail for use
in diving. Additional Aqua-lungs and a small aircraft type of air compressor
should be purchased. Additional arbaletes and an underwater CO2 gun are also
2. Considerable attention should be given to the utilization of under-
water movies in conducting future food chain studies.
3. Further study must be given toward establishing a field station on
one of the Pacific islands if the basic cause of fish poisoning is to be
determined. However, this recommendation in no way obviates the necessity
of continuing the current epidemiological and distributional studies. These
latter investigations from the viewpoint of public health and survival work
are important and should be continued.

4. Our collecting techniques must be improved. It is recommended that
on the next investigation that one or two scientists from other organizations
be invited to participate in the survey. Individuals should be selected who
are intimately acquainted with deep water poisoning techniques and the use
of the trammel net.

5. Study is now being given to the possibility of conducting the next
field investigation at Eniwetok during the spring or suamer of 1954. Word
has just been received fron the Division of Biology and Medicine of the Atonic
Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. that they are planning on establishing


a biological station at Eniwetok and that we are invited to participate in
the program. A few days after receiving this invitation we also learned
that there had been an outbreak of eel poisoning at Eniwetok among Navy
personnel involving' six persons. One of the men died in the Queens Hospital
just prior to our return.


1. An investigation was conducted on the poisonous and venomous fishes of Palmyra
Island during the period of 13 April to 2 May 1953. Members of the staff
from the School of Tropical and Preventive Medicine consisted of Bruce W.
Halstead, Norman C. Bunker, Leonard S. Kuninobu, Robert L. Smith, F. Douglas
Horton, and Donald G. Ollis.

2. Palmyra Island was selected because of its reputation as an important endemic
area for poisonous fishes.

3. A large representative collection of Palmyra fishes were obtained, having
a gross weight of about 1200 pounds. The specimens are in cold storage in
Honolulu and are scheduled to be shipped to Lora Linds within the near future.
The toxic nature of the specimens collected will not be known until screening
studies have been completed.

4. While on Palmyra arrangements were made with Mr. Phil Palmer, the resident
agent of the Fanning Island Plantation, Fanning Island, for a shipment of
representative reef fishes of Funning Island. Word has been received that
a collection of Fanning Island reef fishes has been made. The fishes are
nou frozen and awaiting shipment to the United States. An English concern
has agreed to handle the shipping on a gratis basis. This additional rnater-
ial will make a valuable contribution to our study of the line Island reef

5. A shipment of frozen Line Island fishes has also just been received from

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Mr. Joseph King of the Pacific Oceanic Fishery Investigations of the Fish
and Wildlife Service in Honolulu. The Fish and Wildlife Service has consist-
ently rendered us an invaluable support for the last three years and their
cooperation has been greatly appreciated.


Appreciation is expressed to Captain Miller, Norton Air Force Base, San
Bernardino, California, Colonel Roberts, Port of Embarkation, San Francisco,
California, and to Colonel Rawles, Port of Embarkation, Honolulu, for their
cooperation in the handling of equipment and personnel.

Special thanks are due to the Cormander of the 14th Coast Guard District,
Lieutenant Commander G. W. Sohn, the officers and the crew of the C.G.C. But-
tonwood for the transportation of equipment and personnel from Honolulu to

The kind cooperation and generous hospitality of Mr. Leslie V. Fullard-Leo
and Mrs. Ellen Fullard-Leo, the owners of Palmyra Island, are sincerely apprec-
iated. We also wish to thank Mr. Otto Hornung, the resident agent at Palmyra
Island, for his cooperation and aid during our stay on the island.

Major Brunner and hie associates of the Pacific Division of HATS at
Hickam Field, Honolulu, are to be thanked for arranging the special flight
back to Honolulu.

Finally, once again up wish to express our appreciation to the Office
of Naval Research in Pasadena for their aid in ths return shipment of the
fishes to Loma Linds.

Respectfully sumbitted,

Bruce W. Halstead, M.D.

Original Format



Bruce Halstead, “Report on Investigation of Poisonous and Venomous Fishes at Palmyra Island,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 23, 2019,

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