Ugly truth of the born-again burbot

Imagine a fish with the beauty of Peggy Mount on a bad hair day. It is vaguely eel-like (hence its nickname of eel pout), with the dull colouration of a worn 1950s sofa (any colour you like as long as it's brown). Catching one must have all the excitement of tying your shoelace. And now some mad scientist wants to reintroduce the burbot to Britain.

Researching this article, the only thing I could find in the burbot's favour is that it is reputedly good to eat, though even that is problematic. Larousse Gastronomique says: "A woman would sell her soul for a burbot's liver," (they took food a little more seriously in those days) and Escoffier lists several recipes for burbot (he particularly recommends it provencal style with rice pilaff).

Then again, those Frenchies will cook a scabby dog and claim it tastes wonderful. I reckon Frank Buckland's The Natural History of British Fishes (1881) may be nearer the truth. He writes: "We Londoners very seldom see or hear of a burbolt [sic], and they are such a stupid and ugly fish that I cannot advise trouble to be taken with their dissemination, though doubtless they would thrive in many of our ponds and lakes. The flesh is said to be good, especially the liver when fried, but it is indigestible."

By all accounts, burbot were once so common in this country that they were fed to pigs. They disappeared from British waters sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, depending which source you believe. A reward was offered for any burbot capture in the 1970s, but nobody collected the pounds 100. However, this week's Angling Times reports that an eight-year-old Yorkshire schoolboy claims to have caught one a few weeks ago in the River Esk near Whitby, though the fish was thrown back so we will never know.

They are now protected by the Nature Conservancy Council (pretty cute when there aren't any around to protect). Their disappearance was probably linked to pollution and loss of habitat, though they may just have bored themselves to death. Nobody took any notice of them when they was around, and nobody even bothered to claim a British burbot record when they were more common, though smaller fish appeared on the record list.

Still, Dr Jim Reader, a lecturer in Nottingham University's Department of Life Science, sees something in the ugly creatures that escapes me. He has imported 150 burbot from Moravia in the Czech Republic, and if everything goes to plan, he hopes the fish will breed this winter and that he will eventually be given permission to stock them into the local river Trent. He says: "Man wiped them out through his activities so it would be nice to bring them back."

His plan has not met universal acclaim. Alwyne Wheeler, former keeper of fishes at the Natural History Museum and the foremost authority on fish in Britain, says: "It's a half-baked scheme and a total waste of time and money. British burbot became extinct because our climate got warmer. You might as well bring back beavers, wolves and reindeer too."

Wheeler may have a point. Some fishery authorities regard the presence of burbot as very damaging to waters where salmon and sea trout breed, and one warns that they should be eradicated from the nursery reaches of salmon rivers.

Restoring our native wildlife or another example of man fiddling with nature? A boring fish that spends its life hidden under stones or an attractive new source of food? If you are tempted by those French cooks, let me add one final word of warning. Burbot is well known as the host of the huge tapeworm diphyllobothrium lateum, which can thrive in the human intestine if the fish is eaten raw or only partly cooked. Enjoy your burbot.

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