The Sarpa salpa fish, also known as the “dreamfish” or Salema porgy, identifiable by the golden stripes along its body. “sarpa salpa” by Joachim S. Müller is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Words by Tayla Nguyen
Eating the Sarpa salpa fish could induce vivid hallucinations, potentially caused by ciguatera poisoning.
In 1994, a forty-year-old man ate the Sarpa salpa at a restaurant on the French Riviera and felt very queasy. Two hours later, he had blurred vision, muscle weakness and began vomiting. He decided to drive to the comfort of his home but heard horrifying human and animal wails. He also hallucinated giant arthropods crawling around his car. The man checked himself into a hospital after experiencing these distressing symptoms, but mysteriously, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. He had forgotten this entire ordeal the next day when he recovered.
Although the Sarpa salpa can induce hallucinations when ingested, it is still eaten in some countries – and apparently tastes great! The Sarpa salpa is a common species of coral reef seabream. It is found in Mediterranean waters, the Bay of Biscay in Spain, and the Atlantic Ocean west and south coast of Africa. Today, it is only eaten in France, Tunisia, and Israel.
Most people who eat the Sarpa salpa don’t have any issues. It can even be a staple food for some lower-income families in the Mediterranean or served in some restaurants. Yet, there is always a risk of experiencing hallucinations when consuming the fish, although it is not yet known why.
A cooked Sarpa salpa fish served at the Villa Marie Jeanne Restaurant in France. The fish was smoked over pine needles and then grilled over a wood fire with capers and hot pepper. Photo by Valeilles de Montmirail is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.
After consuming the Sarpa salpa, some people have reported experiencing psychedelic trips like they were under the influence of LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide). They endured frightening visual and auditory hallucinations, often featuring threatening animals. The symptoms begin ten minutes after eating the fish and can last up to thirty-six hours.
National Geographic photographer, Joe Roberts, had a fantastic encounter with the fish! In October 1960, on Norfolk Island, the local fisherman told Joe that eating the Sarpa salpa fish would induce nightmare-like hallucinations. So, as people love to do what told not to, he decided to try it – broiled with potatoes and stewed pumpkin for dinner. Joe insisted that he never dreams, but that night he had crazy realistic visions when asleep.
“It was pure science fiction,” he said. “I saw a new kind of car, steered with a stick like a plane. And then I was taking pictures of a monument to mark man’s first trip into space.”
Due to the mind-altering effects, the Sarpa salpa used to be eaten in Polynesia for spiritual purposes. It is still occasionally eaten when there is no better catch, but it is generally avoided due to the possibility of negative effects.
“The small ones don’t affect me,” said one of the Norfolk Islanders who introduced the Sarpa salpa to Joe Roberts in 1960. “But once, I had a big one for supper. I spent that night on an operating table, with the surgeon doing one operation after another… I kept shouting to my wife for help, but she ignored me. When I awoke and upbraided her for not answering my calls, she said I hadn’t uttered a word.”
It is known that the consumption of this fish can lead to ichthyoallyeinotoxism. This is a rare kind of food poisoning contracted by the consumption of this hallucinogenic fish. Not much is known about this distressing clinical syndrome, apart from its negative impacts on the central nervous system due to the mind-altering toxins.
It is possible that ichthyoallyeinotoxism is an uncommon type of ciguatera poisoning, a type of illness caused by eating coral reef fish contaminated with high levels of toxins called ciguatoxins. It occurs in over 400 species of fish, including some species of fish thought to be edible. Ciguatera poisoning affects the digestive, muscular, and neurological systems. Effects begin thirty minutes after consumption and last up to several days. Short term impacts can include blurred vision, nausea, short-term amnesia, abdominal pain, and paralysis. These effects were all reported by people who experienced hallucinations after eating the Sarpa salpa.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for ciguatera poisoning. However, fatalities from ciguatera poisoning due to respiratory failure, circulatory collapse or arrhythmia are very low as reef fish generally don’t accumulate enough ciguatoxins to be deadly in a single meal. The mortality rate is currently below 1%.
Environmental scientist Dr Catherine Jadot studied the Sarpa salpa for five years in Corsica, an island in France, for her PhD research. She was very interested in what causes this particular fish to have such a profound effect on some people who eat it.
“The clinical symptoms described by the impacted individuals are remarkably similar to the clinical symptoms of ciguatera poisoning,” Dr Jadot said. “It’s not clear however, which poisons is acting. It could be alkaloids of the indole group. These compounds occur naturally in certain algae that the salema porgy eats.”
The Sarpa salpa feeds on benthic algae in the littoral zone, meaning it is likely that the fish eats the algae associated with the ciguatera toxin. This ciguatoxin could accumulate in the fish and be transferred to humans when the fish is ingested, leading to ciguatera poisoning.
Some other scientists hypothesise that the toxins which cause the hallucinogenic effects originate from poisons related to a green macroalgae (seaweed) species. It may accumulate in the head of the Sarpa salpa after the fish consumes it.
There is also the belief that the fish itself contains the potent psychedelic substance DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). This drug is found in many plants and animals and produces hallucinations, although there is not much evidence to support the claim that it is in the Sarpa salpa fish.
One thing everyone can agree on is that it would be beneficial to investigate the Sarpa salpa fish further. There is a new case about once every two to three years, so more information is necessary to protect people from physical and mental distress in the rarer cases of experiencing the toxic and hallucinogenic effects after eating the fish.
“More research is needed to identify the toxin responsible for getting hallucinogenic effects from fish,” agrees Dr Jadot. “Today, there isn’t enough research to know what compounds cause this.”
So, to answer: can you get high off fish? Yes, you can. Would we recommend it? Absolutely not.