The blood-sucking, ancient lamprey might look spooky, but its evolutionary and culinary history is setting fishermen, conservationists, and chefs across the globe on a mission to preserve the living fossils in decline.
- Lamprey have been an important food source in many cultures for thousands of years
- To preserve old traditions annual lamprey festivals are held in Europe
- Record numbers of the native pouched and short-headed lamprey have been counted in South Australia
As one of the most primitive vertebrates alive today, scientists have recorded about 40 different species of the jawless, eel-like fish.
“They have an oral disc with several quite savage looking teeth inside and they use this to attach to larger fish out in the ocean, raft a hole then feed on blood and fluids and even chunks of flesh,” SARDI research scientist Chris Bice said.
“They only feed in the marine environment and as soon as they move into freshwater [from saltwater] and start their upstream migration, they stop feeding.
“So, whilst they may look a bit savage, they are of no risk or danger to humans.”
Lamprey are found all over the world, but numbers of the most common species in Australia, the parasitic pouched lamprey and short-headed lamprey, had been in decline and are only now slowly recovering in the mighty Murray River.
“There’s a lot of action that has been undertaken now to support their migration a bit more, and we are seeing some pretty positive signs of their abundance in certain locations.”
Rich flavours from the deep
The frightening-looking creatures have been coveted throughout history, as a prized food source for ancient Romans, kings and First Nations people.
Today, it is still considered a culinary delicacy by many different cultures, including Dutch, French and Latvian.
Henri Roquas is a food archaeologist, artist and chef from the Netherlands who has founded the Zeeprik Genootschap, a sea lamprey society dedicated to bringing attention to the unique marine dweller.
His fascination for lamprey dates back to his childhood when a near drowning experience in a local river left him fixated on what lay below the body of water.
“[Almost a year later] we caught a fish sucked on another fish, that was said to be a lamprey. It was in that same water I almost drowned in, so that struck me.”
Many decades later, Mr Roquas is fostering ancient traditions around consuming the unique creature.
While he has been preserving old traditional French recipes, the lamprey lover has also been experimenting with new methods, each with a different taste.
“Or you can roast it, resulting in a totally different taste.”
Even celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal have tried their hand at cooking up middle age recipes with the hideous creature.
Festivals, fees and feasts by the Baltic Sea
Meanwhile in Latvia, lamprey is more humbly cultivated.
Safonovs Gundars has been fishing since his childhood and remembers catching lamprey by hand.
“I would catch and smoke them in the woods right by the river,” he said.
But today, there are restrictions in place and catching lamprey in Latvia requires a licence, or people face a 40-euro penalty for each one caught during the off season.
It has lead to local fishermen being highly sought after in the small Baltic nation, for their precious bounty that is caught with special traps.
“The price of lamprey is quite high, but buying them from small-scale fishermen is up to three times cheaper than buying it in the store.
Connection to ancient culture and the creatures that have snaked through time are celebrated across Europe each year with annual lamprey festivals, such as the Negu Svetki in Latvia’s riverside town of Carnikava each year.
Lamprey lives on Down Under
Whilst in Europe they rally to preserve the culinary and cultural connections, in Australia, it is all hands on deck to boost the numbers of a native species that was almost wiped out.
This year, South Australian monitoring has found record numbers of lamprey migrating in the Murray River, with 93 pouched and three short-headed lamprey detected.
“During the Millennium drought, we didn’t have any freshwater flows to the Coorong for almost three years,” the Environment and Water Department’s Adrienne Rumbelow said.
“The barrages were all shut, water levels below Lock 1 dropped and for fish like lamprey that need to migrate between freshwater and saltwater, there was no opportunity to breed during that period.