Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Art of Catching Lampreys

March 25th, 2011 · 4 Comments


Following up on an earlier post about the decline of England’s enthusiasm for eels, I spent (wasted?) a fair bit of time this morning digging into America’s long-standing hatred for lampreys. These parasitic fish, widely held responsible for the death of King Henry I, were once on the verge of conquering the Great Lakes; they were essentially the Asian carp of their day, inspiring conservationists to dream up all manner of zany schemes to stop their invasion. We eventually stopped the lamprey from becoming too great a nuisance with the invention of TMF, an effective lampricide that has been dumped into the Great Lakes since 1958.

I did wonder, however, whether there were any serious efforts to convince the American public that lampreys were a delicacy on par with cod or halibut. They were enjoyed not only by English kings, but also by generations of Maori, who called the fish piharau and used ingenious means to ensnare them. Perhaps all the lampreys needed was better PR—or, perhaps, a pact between the U.S. government and Long John Silver’s to develop a tasty breading-and-frying method.

By the way, yes, I realize that I cheated with the image above—lampreys are not eels. I just wanted a nice excuse to point your toward this fantastic trove of materials related to Maori eeling techniques and technologies. I found the eel spears to be particularly impressive.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Wow. That is a seriously toxic looking chemical. Pretty much everything you don’t want going through your body in one tidy package.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: And yet they’ve been dumping vast quantities of it in the Great Lakes for over half a century. I’d be curious to know how they determined TMF’s safety for humans.

  • Jordan

    Brendan,

    This appears to be a compilation of the various toxicity studies done on TMF: http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+7506

    No human data, but I guess they decided that the extensive animal data was enough to make the judgement call. After doing some more research, I’m going to recant my original statement a bit. It’s not something that I’d want to be ingesting directly, but it does break down on the order of days in water and will be metabolized by gut bacteria if you do happen to eat some. Still not great, and it’d probably be for the best if they didn’t have to use it, but a little bit probably won’t hurt you more than a lot of other compounds we consume on a regular basis.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thanks for tracking down the data. I think your take is dead-on: there are certainly risks, but probably none too great given the ratio of chemical to water in the Great Lakes. And the risks are further mitigated by the alternative, which is letting the lampreys run roughshod over one of the nation’s greatest natural resources, to the terrible detriment of the economy. Imagine all the deaths from economic deprivation and its attendant consequences (e.g. poor health care, substance abuse, suicide) that TMF has prevented.

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