When the first Parisians settled on the Île de la Cité 2,000 years ago, the river lapping against its muddy shoreline was teeming with fish. By the middle of the 20th century, construction and pollution had wiped out all but the hardiest of species. The European eel was one of the five to hang on. After a concerted effort by environmentalists, the water quality has been significantly improved and the Seine now supports 37 species of fish. The eels are one of the largest, reaching lengths of up to 133 centimeters, however, they would have been dwarfed by the five-meter sturgeons that once swam here.
As weirs and locks were constructed to facilitate the movement of raw materials and goods on barges, it became impossible for migratory species to get from the mouth of the Seine at Le Havre to their spawning grounds. Only the eel, which can cover large distances on land in wet weather, survived. The sea lamprey, sturgeon, salmon, trout, smelt, and shad all disappeared. The reopening of essential passageways has since allowed this monstrous-looking fish to return. At the end of its 120-centimeter body, it has concentric circles of sharp suckers with which it latches on to passing fish in order to feast on their scales, flesh, and blood. Charming.
The Atlantic salmon, which remains on the European Union’s endangered species list, had vanished from the Seine by 1900. When a 1,000-strong shoal of them appeared in Paris in the summer of 2009 it brought tears to the eyes of the city’s fishermen and women. Their 150-kilometer journey from the Atlantic Ocean was a sure sign that the effort to clean up the entire extent of the river was starting to pay off. Their comeback remains in its early days but one day soon Paris’ finest riverside restaurants might be serving fish caught just a few meters away.
This enormous species of catfish is native to southern, central, and eastern Europe and was introduced to the Seine as a sport fish. Their population in Parisian waters is now huge in terms of both number and weight – they can reach up to 150 pounds – and they can be caught with relative ease on the river and along the canals. A quick search on YouTube will throw up dozens of videos of catfish catches, some within sight of the city’s most famous landmarks.
These vaguely prehistoric seabirds can be observed flying low over the river’s surface, diving deep in search of prey, or basking in the sun on posts and pontoons. Cormorants have been traditionally used for fishing in