Lamprey pie: Michigan man prepares to ship invasive, blood-sucking fish to England for king's coronation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The death of an English monarch portends the crowning of another and that means giving King Charles III the gift of a pie filled with Michigan flavor.

An invasive species, lampreys have decimated game species in the Great Lakes.

They have been the fishing industry’s public enemy No. 1 for more than a century, ever since they reached the Midwest from the Atlantic Ocean via ship channels, according to Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

Lampreys are parasitic fish with a suction-cup mouth, ringed with sharp, horny teeth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The lamprey uses its rough tongue to rasp away the fish's flesh so it can feed on its host's blood and body fluids. One lamprey kills about 40 pounds of fish every year.

Because lampreys have disappeared from England, yet are abundant in the Great Lakes, the Fishery Commission has provided lampreys to England for nearly two decades on major occasions involving the monarchy, said Marc Gaden, deputy executive secretary for the Fishery Commission.

“The most recent time that we supplied them was in 2015 when Queen Elizabeth marked being the longest serving monarch in British history, and we sent over a batch. So, we are a tiny little part of history,” Gaden said Saturday.

“We have lamprey coming out of our ears every spring, when we trap them. we use them for research and also for outreach, showing them to boaters."

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Researcher Nick Johnson, 27, of Rogers City, Mich., holds a sea lamprey on the banks of the Little Manistee River near Manistee, Mich. on May 11, 2009.
Researcher Nick Johnson, 27, of Rogers City, Mich., holds a sea lamprey on the banks of the Little Manistee River near Manistee, Mich. on May 11, 2009.

“So it was just a matter of taking about five of them, freezing them and shipping them FedEx,” he said. The Fishery Commission operates through a treaty between the United States and Canada, and it supports a coalition of Michigan and seven other states, Ontario, and indigenous tribes; it spends about $25 million a year keeping lamprey in check to preserve the fish stocks in the Great Lakes, whose economic impact exceeds $7 billion a year, he said.

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Gaden expects to get a call for more lamprey in the near future, whenever a date is set for the coronation of the new monarch, Charles III. As usual with English royalty, the tradition goes back centuries, he said.

“This all started in the Middle Ages when the city of Gloucester in England had to pay homage to the reigning monarch, and the city’s way of doing that was to present a pie made of lamprey,” which at that time were considered a delicacy and prized by the upper class, he said. The gift quickly became the city’s traditional way of showing respect to the monarchy.

Fast forward to 2002: Gaden got a call from Gloucester. Lampreys had disappeared from England, apparently because virtually every freshwater stream had a dam near its mouth, preventing lamprey from entering to spawn, and the creatures are unable to reproduce in deep water, according to the website of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

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English  journalist Martin Kirby is shown in 2012 with the Queen's Jubilee lamprey pie, shaped to resemble Gloucester Cathedral, and made of Great Lakes lampreys shipped from Michigan. Although despised by Michigan anglers, lampreys are prized in England and another pie is likely to be baked for the new monarch, King Charles III, said a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor.
English journalist Martin Kirby is shown in 2012 with the Queen's Jubilee lamprey pie, shaped to resemble Gloucester Cathedral, and made of Great Lakes lampreys shipped from Michigan. Although despised by Michigan anglers, lampreys are prized in England and another pie is likely to be baked for the new monarch, King Charles III, said a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor.

In England in 2002, “they were about to have the Queen’s 50th jubilee, and they had not been able to make a pie for 25 years. So, they asked if they could get lampreys from Canada, and since we’re a binational commission I said, ‘Sure.’ I sent over a batch that were frozen, some publican in Gloucester made the pie and I heard that the queen was very pleased.”

When Elizabeth II marked her 60th jubilee in 2012, the city of Gloucester called on the Fishery Commission again.

“For this pie, they went all out. They made it in the shape of the Gloucester cathedral, and the queen’s son Prince Edward received the pie,” Gaden said. Shortly before, he happened to be in England on vacation, “and so I was actually there to present the lampreys in person to the mayor.”

“I actually have a certificate saying I’m the purveyor of lampreys to the queen,” Gaden said.

He might soon be getting another phone call from England, and after that, another certificate, this time from a king.

Contact Bill Laitner: blaitner@freepress.com

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: King Charles coronation pie: American to send invasive fish to England