You Don't Have to Take LSD to Hallucinate: This Fish Will Make You Trip

Adventurers seeking new, terrifying hallucinogenic experiences might want to head for a nice seafood restaurant in the Mediterranean. There's a fish there, and along the Atlantic Coast of Africa, that may not impress their palates, but could blow their minds.

The fish is Sarpa salpa, commonly known as the salema porgy, a rather unremarkable specimen recognizable by the gold racing stripes it boasts. But don't let that benign appearance deceive—the sea bream can induce vivid, LSD-like hallucinations.

It's been known as a party fish for a while. According to that wonderful compendium of oddities, Atlas Obscura, it was used as a recreational drug in the Roman Empire and it is known in Arabic as "the fish that makes dreams."

Recent reports of tripping on salema are rare, but two contemporary case studies were reported in a 2006 article in the journal Clinical Toxicology. Neither subject had a great time, but they certainly had a psychedelic time.

In the first case, from 1994, a 40-year-old man enjoyed fresh baked Sarpa salpa at a restaurant while vacationing in the French Riviera. After a couple of hours, he developed nausea, followed by blurred vision, muscle weakness and vomiting. When his symptoms persisted the next day, he attempted to drive home. He didn't make it. Instead, he reported that he couldn't drive because of all the screaming animals, of which the giant arthropods were the most distracting. He did manage to make his way to a hospital, where he made a full recovery after 36 hours. Well, almost—he couldn't actually remember the experience.

Eight years later, another case popped up, in St-Tropez, also in France. A 90-year-old man bought, cleaned, cooked and ate a salema, then reported hallucinating squawking birds and screaming people. Without telling anyone because he feared he was going crazy, he endured two nights of nightmarish hallucinations before the fish high wore off.

The auditory and visual hallucinations are typical of ichthyoallyeinotoxism, a rare poisoning linked to eating certain fish, according to Catherine Jadot, a marine biologist at the Reef Ball Foundation. Jadot, who focused on Sarpa salpa in her doctoral research, said it can produce nervous system disturbances and LSD-like effects.

Or are they DMT-like effects? Although the research is not settled, one school of thought is that DMT (dimethyltryptamine), the drug found in the South American spiritual healing compound ayahuasca, is responsible for the trippy time. Another explanation is that alkaloids of the indole group, chemically similar in structure to LSD, that occur naturally in certain algae and phytoplankton consumed by the fish are the cause.

It's unclear just when the fish can and can't produce psychoactive effects, although it seems that the fish head contains the toxins. The season when the fish is caught may play a role, with some suggestion that the levels of toxins are highest in the fall. But the cases in the literature occurred in late spring and summer.

In any case, it seems to be a rare occurrence. Still, next time you're on the French Riviera and you are attacked by screaming spiders after a sea bream dinner, you'll know why. Bon appetit!


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