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January 10th, 2017

The Fish that Makes Dreams

BY Christian Ford

Rumor has it that ancient Romans once partook of a fish which produced what we would call an acid trip.  The evidence of this is, unsurprisingly, fuzzy — but it’s well within the realm of the possible.  Sarpa salpa is a common denizen of the Mediterranean coast that goes by the name of the cow bream, or the goldline, or the salema porgy.  It’s a frequent “fresh caught” menu item in the south of France, and that’s where a couple men ordered sarpa and began a thirty-six hour odyssey of — to use the technical term —  tripping balls.

The younger man, feeling unwell, attempted to cut short his vacation, but instead checked himself into a local hospital.  It seems he was unable to drive because his car was surrounded by giant screaming spiders.   The older man ended up with the sound effects of The Birds (cacophonous screeches, human screams) looping in his head by day and wrenching nightmares by night, all of which lasted thirty-six hours.  You may not be surprised to hear that he thought himself descending into madness.

This kind of psychotropic food poisoning has a name, ichthyoallyeinotoxism, but the phenomena remains mysterious.  Around the world, there are eight families of fish associated with ichthyoallyeinotoxism, and folk terms suggest this is not a new experience.  Reunion Island has a rabbitfish known as “the fish that inebriates,” and you can find a mullet called the “chief of ghosts” in Hawai’i.  Sarpa goes by the name of “the fish that makes dreams” in Arabic, while psychotropic adventurers just call it the dreamfish.

The source of the hallucinations remains uncertain.  All the implicated fish feed by grazing on algae, and some algaes contain indole group alkaloids, which are chemically similar to LSD.  That said, there is some suggestion that the fish also contain dimethyltryptamine, an even more powerful hallucinogen.  What’s strange is that sarpa is commonly eaten in France, Tunisia and Israel (though not in Italy and Spain where it’s considered unfit as food for people), but reports of 36-hour hallucinations are only sporadic.  Perhaps people are hiding in their rooms until it’s over, or perhaps it takes a special conjunction of fish plus aglae plus method of preparation to make it happen.

This would all be a curious bit of trivia if not for the fact that the times they are a changing in the sea. The Mediterranean Sarpa has been netted off the coast of England and while it’s not telling tales of how it got there, scores of warm water fish are making their way north as their native waters grow hotter.  The sea may look unchanging, but changes are coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up, as the good doctors at the Centre Antipoison at the Hôpital Sainte Marguerite in Marseilles readily admit.  In a recent survey of things-doctors-should-know-about-but-don’t-because-it-didn’t-used-to-be-this-way, they tick off several alarms.

New kinds of plankton have moved into the Med, and what’s more, they’re producing blooms like they never did in their home waters.  The chief culprit, (leaving out ourselves) is Ostreopsis which concentrates in the food chain to produce poisonous shellfish and can reproduce so quickly that sea spray can become toxic for people ashore.

There’s ciguatera poisoning.  Long known in the tropics, this is poisoning via reef fish, producing a bouquet of neurological and gastro symptoms that are somewhat similar to ichthyoallyeinotoxism in that hallucinations can occur.  The trick is that the effects of ciguatera go on for much longer, lasting up to 20 years.  Did I mention that ciguatera is  impossible to inactivate via cooking, there is no way of determining if a reef fish is a carrier and, bonus, it can be sexually transmitted.  Ciguatera, too, is no longer content to remain in its native range, starting to appear on Spain and Portugal’s Atlantic islands and in some of the African fisheries which sell to Northern Europe.

Then, of course, there’s jellyfish.  All you really need to know is that the more marine ecosystems are damaged, the better it is for jellyfish — which is to say, it’s the worse for everyone else, us included.   This “worse” now includes a thing called “seabather’s eruption,” which was once restricted to the coasts of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of the rainy season.  You don’t need to be stung by a jelly to get seabather’s eruption, the hive-studded rash that occurs only under skin covered by a bathing suit.

Instead, the logic behind this willfully perverse malady is that extremely tiny jellyfish larvae pass right through the fabric of swimsuits, but are then crushed by the weight of the cloth.  Crushed jelly larvae release their cyanotoxins, and the eruption begins.  The range of this particularly unfortunate blowback has rapidly expanded, now covering most of the coast of Brazil and extending all the way up the Atlantic coast of Florida.  If there’s a bright side, it that this might reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted ciguatera.

We’ll wrap up our overview with the most ironic of these man-made disasters.  It appears on the marquee as Lessepsian migration and it means movement  of species between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, a phenomena named in honor of the Suez Canal’s builder, Ferdinand de Lesseps.  Though Lessepsian migration has been happening since the canal’s opening in 1867, it, too, is accelerating.  Two recent arrivals to the Mediterranean are a kind of rabbitfish.  They’re herbivores, and in the Eastern Med, they have effectively wiped out the indigenous fish that fulfills that role, namely our dreamfish pal, Sarpa salpa.  But don’t worry.  As grazers on the same indole-laden algae, the rabbitfish are quite capable of taking over as the fish that makes dreams, meaning that their migration, just like all the rest of these species on the move, gives a whole new meaning to the term “bad trip.”


Sarpa Salpa by jome jome
Sarpa Salpa Cafeteria by Christophe Quintin
Suez Then by Photographic Heritage
Suez Now by Tim