Coastal and Freshwater news

Phoebe Argyle on a field trip in the tropics
20 September 2016

Scholarship provides valuable experience

A scholarship partnership between the University of Canterbury and Cawthron is providing valuable experience for a PhD student studying toxic microalgae in the Pacific.

Phoebe Argyle, 26, has recently returned from Tonga. She’s focusing on harmful microalgae that live on the surface of seaweed in the tropics and cause ciguatera fish poisoning – an illness that can cause death.

Will climate change spread nasty illness?

Although ciguatera is found mainly in the tropics (such as the Caribbean, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands), it’s considered a potential threat to New Zealand seafood, with researchers unsure how climate change will affect its spread.

It is thought the toxin poisons up to 100,000 people a year, although Argyle says it’s impossible to know for sure as the condition is so under-reported. “There are a lot of research gaps, and it’s difficult to diagnose. It’s a really nasty illness,” she says.

There is no cure or treatment, only management of the symptoms. They can include vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and muscle paralysis, which are sometimes misdiagnosed as other conditions. But Argyle says a curious giveaway is reverse hot and cold sensations – so people touching something hot will think it’s cold.

Experts and organisations piecing the puzzle together

She says management will require a multidisciplinary approach between doctors, toxicologists, biologists, ecologists, communities, chemists, the seafood industry and government. “It’s a very broad problem, and it’s interesting seeing how all the different types of researchers can work together to finish the puzzle about how we might prevent, mitigate, and solve this problem.”

Argyle is working with Cawthron as part of UC Connect, a scholarship scheme between the University of Canterbury and institutions like Cawthron where funding is shared equally. Her Canterbury supervisor, Islay Marsden, says that Argyle first started working with Cawthron when she did her master’s in marine science through the University of Auckland, examining the toxicity of harmful microalgae on sea urchin and zebrafish embryos (which has just been published in the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research).

An important partnership

Dr Tim Harwood, who supervises her work at Cawthron with Dr Lesley Rhodes as part of their joint leadership of the Safe New Zealand Seafood Programme, says the scholarship partnership with UC is important to Cawthron.

“It allows us to further our understanding of ciguatera fish poisoning and to develop new capability within the Safe New Zealand Seafood research programme.”

University of Canterbury College of Science academic business development manager Sarah Caseley says the University of Canterbury values partnerships with research and innovation organisations such as Cawthron.

“A number of our graduates continue to work on a wide range of science research projects that will make a difference to the health and well-being of our communities.”