Could the long-lost burbot return to our rivers?

Illustration of a burbot by AF Lydon

A project is under way to reintroduce the burbot to Norfolk rivers. This image is from British Fresh Water Fishes by Rev W. Houghton, illustrated by AF Lydon - Credit: Rev. W. Houghton/A.F. Lydon/Wikimedia 

The long-lost burbot could soon return to Norfolk's rivers - thanks to a determined conservation effort to reintroduce this enigmatic fish.

A project is under way to bring back the burbot, a freshwater relative of the cod which was once common in East Anglia - but has not been caught here since 1969.

Its decline and eventual UK extinction has been partly attributed to post-war river straightening and dredging works which removed its spawning grounds.

But now a team of scientists and conservationists have targeted Norfolk's River Wissey as a possible reintroduction site.

Carl Sayer, a Norfolk-born professor at University College London, is working with a team of researchers at universities in London and Hull to assess the suitability of habitats.

Meanwhile the Norfolk Rivers Trust is speaking to burbot breeders in Belgium to source fish eggs, and exploring potential sites for a local hatchery.

The project partners hope the burbot could be back within three years.

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Prof Sayer said: "The burbot is the great lost East Anglian fish. It would have been part of our culture in the past, but it is something we have lost so we want it back. 

"The reason it became extinct here is that after the Second World War, throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, there was a lot of dredging to deepen the rivers and create flood banks. It isolated the rivers from their flood plains - they stopped flooding. The reason that is important is the burbot is a flood-plain spawner. It is a river fish, bit it needs still water to spawn.

"They were already in decline because of pollution, but that was the nail in their coffin.

"To get them back, we might need to do quite a lot of really amazing river restoration work - large-scale pulling out of flood banks and reconnecting rivers with their flood plains - basically rewilding them."

Aquatic conservation specialist Carl Sayer at a restored pond in Heydon, north Norfolk

Aquatic conservation specialist Prof Carl Sayer, of University College London, is part of a project aiming to reintroduce the burbot to Norfolk rivers - Credit: Chris Hill

Prof Sayer said the River Wissey was an ideal candidate as it runs through the army's Stanford Training Area (Stanta), which made it "wilder" as it missed much of the previous river management work.

He added: "If this was successful we have got the blueprint for how to do it. To get the burbot back, rivers would have to be in much better condition than they are now, so we are hoping the burbot could be a driver for really good restoration work which will also benefit trout, eels and all sorts of other fish."

River restoration work in Norfolk

Prof Carl Sayer says "really amazing river restoration work" could be needed to create the right habitat for the burbot - Credit: Carl Sayer

The slippery, bearded burbot, also known locally as the eel-pout, can still be found in northern Europe and North America.

Dr Jonah Tosney, operations director for the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said he was confident the long-running project to bring the species back to Britain could secure the necessary approvals.

"It has taken years to convince Natural England and the Environment Agency that it is the right thing to do, and that this is a native species that needs support," he said.

"Practically, we have to get eggs from Belgium, where they have already done a successful reintroduction. We need to bring them over and raise them in a hatchery until they are about four inches long, which is the stage where reintroductions are most successful. We still need to find that rearing facility, that is the next step." 

A burbot in a fish tank

A project is under way to bring the long-lost burbot back to Norfolk's rivers - Credit: Ian Welby

In response to concerns raised by anglers about the reappearance of an aquatic predator, Dr Tosney said: "The burbot is a predator and as with most fish they will eat pretty much anything.

"Burbot will eat young trout, perch and roach, and equally these fish will eat burbot. So they are a predator but also a food source.

"All these species have evolved to live together, and if perch or trout or pike went extinct in the Wissey, we would want to bring them back.

"They are part of the ecosystem. There will be a rebalancing of numbers, but they are not a threat to any particular population.

"Despite the worries about it being a predator, we are getting a lot of interest from fishermen too because it is something that a lot of people will have caught in living memory."

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