During a recent fishing trip, as we jigged for bait and got repeated stuck by the tiny hooks, talk turned to the recent reports of a death and infections in the Florida Panhandle from the saltwater-dwelling bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus. Many reports used the term “flesh-eating bacteria” to refer to Vibrio.  This description is false and misleading and causes unnecessary fear and panic. Most healthy individuals are not at risk for V. vulnificus infection, however, to ensure that your time on the water is safe and enjoyable, be aware of your risk and take steps to minimize becoming infected.

The name Vibrio refers to a large and diverse group of marine bacteria. Most members are harmless, however, some strains produce harmful toxins and are capable of causing a disease known as “vibriosis.” Because of Florida’s warm climate, Vibrio are present in brackish waters year-round. They are most abundant from April to November when the water is the warmest. For infection to occur, pathogenic Vibrio strains must enter the body of a susceptible individual who either eats raw and contaminated seafood or exposes an open wound for a prolonged period in water containing these bacteria.

Symptoms of vibriosis may arise within 1–3 days, but usually occur a few hours after exposure. Infections typically begin with swelling and redness of skin, followed by severe pain, blistering, and discharge at the site of the wound. If you suspect infection, seek medical treatment immediately.

Anglers can reduce their risk by following a few safety tips.  Because fish, including live bait, carry Vibrio on their bodies, avoid or minimize handling whenever possible. The proper use of landing gear and release tools can help to minimize handling. If you cannot avoid handling the fish, use a wet towel or gloves to protect yourself. Be aware of areas that can cause injury like spines, barbs, and teeth.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after fishing, especially before handling food. Be sure to clean your gear after each use, taking special care with sharp objects like hooks and knives.

Adapted from: Abeels, H., G. Barbarite, A. Wright, and P. McCarthy. 2016. Frequently Asked Questions about Vibrio in Florida. SGEF-231.  https://eos.ucs.uri.edu/EOS_Linked_Documents/flsgp/SGEF_231_fact-sheet_2016.pdf

“An Equal Opportunity Institution”

A happy angler with a Trigger fish near Destin, Florida (Photo credit: L. Tiu).

Laura Tiu

Sea Grant Extension Agent - Okaloosa and Walton Counties