Presumed to have been extinct since the 1970s, two recent sightings have sparked hopes that burbot could still be clinging to survival.
The last living specimen of the distinctive species was captured from Cambridgeshire’s River Cam in 1969, and since then none has been seen in the wild…until now.
Just weeks apart, at different ends of the country, anglers have reported witnessing burbot swimming in our rivers, news which has sparked an impromptu Environment Agency netting operation to see if any specimens can be caught.
The first sighting was made by 49-year-old lifelong angler John Kitson, from Norwich, who had a mystery 2ft 6ins-long fish rest at his feet for five minutes while he was wading a stretch of the River Eden in Cumbria.
“The fish was unlike anything I’d seen in 40 years of angling,” said John.
“It was blotchy, with a rounded head, a long dorsal fin and a stubby little tail. I’m positive it wasn’t a catfish or a lamprey. A friend suggested it might be a burbot and when I got home and Googled a burbot image online I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s it’.
“I feel privileged to have seen a fish that’s supposed to be extinct. I can guarantee that it’s not!” he added.
The second sighting, by French-born angler Emmanuel Hovette, was made on the Great Ouse below the sluice downstream of The Pike and Eel pub, at Needingworth in Cambridgeshire.
“I was perch fishing with my partner when we spotted two marbled-brown, 2ft-long fish which I’m certain were burbot, a species I’ve caught from the River Cher, near Bourges in France, on numerous occasions,” said Holywell-based Emmanuel, who has a masters degree in fisheries.
“I spotted them in clear water 1m deep and I immediately though ‘burbot’. It was only when I returned home and went online that I realised they’re meant to be extinct in the UK. That clearly isn’t the case. I reported my sighting to the EA and they said that they might try netting the area to see if they can catch any,” he added.
In 2007, fisheries scientist Ian Wellby, then a lecturer at Brooksby Melton College, successfully bred burbot as part of plans to eventually reintroduce the species to UK rivers.
“We don’t know all that much about the nation’s rivers – the EA’s fisheries surveys aren’t that extensive and anglers don’t fish them that much, so isolated populations could have survived undetected all these years. It’s unlikely, but it is possible,” he said.