In 2006 two men cooked and ate a fish which they had caught in the Western Mediterranean. Minutes after ingesting the fish frightening visual and auditory hallucinations began to overcome them. These intense visions lasted 36 hours. The fish they had caught was a Sarpa Salpa. A species of Sea Bream which is commonly found off the coast of South Africa and Malta and can induce ichthyoallyeinotoxism, a condition also known as hallucinogenic fish poisoning.
I recently learned that Vice columnist Hamilton Morris is assembling a team to capture and analyze a live sample of Sarpa Salpa. Morris is a writer and filmmaker and expert in anything psychoactive. In his column for Vice, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, he mixes his subjective experiences with insights into pharmacology, neurology and chemistry. In one column he traveled to the Amazonian jungle to have the secretions of a “shamanic” frog burnt into his arm. In another he traveled to Haiti to be dusted with the voodoo “zombie” poison Tetrodotoxin. He is currently working on a complex research project about extremely obscure information related to psychoactive mushrooms.
I e-mailed Hamilton to find out more about his trip.
Stephen Baxendale: Do you have any theories on what causes the fish to be hallucinogenic?
Hamilton Morris: The sea is a rich source of halogens. Scientists have found a variety of marine iodo-tryptophans and chloro-tryptophans in compounds like the plakohypaphorines and some amazing sponge derived tryptamines, like 5-bromo-DMT, which has been demonstrated to have “antidepressant-like” activity in rodents and is possibly psychedelic in humans. It seems that many of the sponge derived tryptamines are of microbial origin and same is true for more complex compounds like TTX and probably the byrostatins. So I think it is likely the fish ingests some kind of a microorganism that biosynthesizes the compound, which may behave as a classical serotonergic psychedelic or may have some messier deliriant effects, based on the case reports either could be possible.
Do you plan on ingesting the fish yourself?
If I have positively identified the species as Sarpa salpa I will carefully ingest it, starting with 1µg of fish and incrementally increasing the dose.
Do you think consuming hallucinogenic fish will ever catch on as a recreational drug?
Well it was already popular in the Roman empire so it’s really a question of whether it will make a comeback.
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Stephen Baxendale is a writer from Liverpool, England. He specializes in lowlife literature and fringe journalism
Photo by Steven Van Tendeloo / CC