Fishing Lines: Fat eel's tale of the tapeworm

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The Independent Online
IT IS comforting to see that in 1993 the National Rivers Authority has no plans to discontinue its Daft Ideas Department. This section, whose prime achievement last year was to introduce a weekly licence that cost exactly half of the annual rod licence fee, is now looking at reintroducing the burbot.

Imagine a fat eel which looks like Peggy Mount dipped in cowpats. This is the little charmer that the NRA would like to put into Nottingham's River Trent. It is carrying out a study to see if the burbot's habits are suitable. Presumably if it proves to be totally unsuited, then thousands will be imported from Germany, reared at Calverton fish farm near Nottingham and put into the river.

Let's have a look at the good things about burbot. Well, it is said to be delicious, its white flesh similar in taste to monkfish. The liver, which accounts for 6 to 10 per cent of the body weight, is rich in vitamins A and D.

The only freshwater member of the cod family in Europe, it was once common in this country. The Booke of Fishing with Hooke and Line of 1590 says: 'They have such a plentie in the fenne brookes, they feed their hogges with them.' And probably a fitting use for the ugly little beggar.

But by the 1950s, they were very rare and probably limited only to a couple of East Anglian rivers such as the Cam and the Ouse. You don't know how exciting it is to live on the river where the country's last burbot probably lurked. And lurk they do. Burbot are bottom-dwelling, night feeders that spend the day hidden under stones or overhanging banks, behaviour that earned them the name of coney or rabbit fish.

They were extinct by the 1970s, despite Angling Times putting up a pounds 100 reward for any capture and the Sunday Telegraph's angling correspondent stating that he dreamt of catching one. Pollution was clearly a key factor: the fish needs well-oxygenated water that is almost clean enough to support trout. There are fewer and fewer waters in the country, let alone in Fenland, falling into this category.

Alwyne Wheeler, one of the country's foremost fish biologists and former keeper of fishes at the British Museum, is not enthusiastic about bringing back the burbot. He has condemned the scheme as a waste of money, saying: 'I've never heard such a ridiculous idea in my life.' Wheeler points out that the burbot almost certainly became extinct because England had become too warm. The fish is common in Arctic Europe, Siberia and Alaska, where it grows to more than 4ft and a weight of around 70lb.

'The NRA would have to stock about 10,000 burbot a year over several years, for the species to make any kind of comeback. Even then, it would be only momentary,' he says.

Even assuming that it did colonise the Trent, it wouldn't be very popular. On rivers holding salmon and trout, it is considered highly inadvisable to put in burbot because of their liking for fish spawn.

If you do catch one and feel like trying out its much-acclaimed culinary qualities (Escoffier lists three recipes for burbot), just remember that it is also renowned as a host of the giant tapeworm Diphyllobothrium lateum, which can thrive in the human intestine if the fish is not cooked properly.