The moray eel in the Canary Islands, tradition and beauty

Moray eels have been fished, cooked and eaten in the Canary Islands since time immemorial, and not only in the archipelago, as they have been served at the most luxurious banquets since the time of the Roman Empire. It is a typical food in Canarian recipes, with its own elaborations, and also on our coasts, where up to ten different types of moray eelscan be found.

Moray eel picopato or lobster
The picopato moray eel, also known as the lobster moray

The meat of the moray eel is exquisite and can be prepared in various ways, but the most common way of cooking and eating it is by frying it. An animal as precious as it is dangerous and a delicacy.

Characteristics and different species

This animal is characterised by its elongated and muscular shape, similar to that of a snake or eel, they are bony fish belonging to the Murenidae family. Their size and weight vary according to the species, but they also vary according to the animal itself. You can find specimens of 40 cm, 60 cm, even one metre or more and weighing from one kilo to two, three or more. An adult moray eel can reach a maximum length of 130 cm and weigh 6 kilos.

The shape of their head and their colours make the difference between the different species. The most common species in the islands are the black moray (dark brown with irregular black spots and white spots) and the painted moray (yellow with irregular dark brown spots and brown head with small yellow spots), due to their abundance in Canarian waters and wide distribution.

Black brunette coming out of her cave
The black moray, a very common species in the Canaries

Other species of moray can also be observed, such as: the moray e el (yellowish with polygonal patterns forming a net); the picopato or lobster moray (brown, with a more yellowish head and arched jaw, with yellow spots and dots); the murion (brown with lighter or darker areas), whose capture is prohibited due to its vulnerable situation; as well as the spotted moray (yellow with spots in the form of brown dots), whose fishing is also prohibited due to its situation.

Location, habitat and feeding

Moray eels are not only found in the Canary Islands, but can also be found in the rest of the archipelagos that make up Macaronesia, from the Azores, through Madeira, Islas Salvajes and Cape Verde. They are nocturnal animals that inhabit rocky bottoms from shallow waters, i.e. shallow waters, to depths of 800 metres, both in coastal areas and in the open sea. They seek protection in crevices and holes where they hide during the day. Territorial and predatory, at night, the moray is active and goes out in search of crustaceans, molluscs and fish, although it is also a scavenger.

A murion among seaweed
Fishing for murion is banned on the islands due to its vulnerable status.

The art of moreniar and the singing of the moray eel

Moray eels have been fished and consumed in the Canary Islands for centuries, so much so that remains of this animal have been found in aboriginal sites. Of course, apart from the innovative tools that are currently used for fishing, from hook tackle, pots, drums or bicheros, moray eels have a traditional way of being caught.  

The art of moreniar in the traditional way consists of collecting the animal at low tide, in the puddle area, using a loop made from a hollow reed. A wire is passed through it and ends in a sliding loop. The bait, preferably a piece of octopus, is attached to this instrument by means of a rope, as it is a staple food in the moray eels' diet. Then, circular movements are made with this instrument among the rocks that serve as shelter for the fish, while a specific song, known as the moray's song, is sung.

Close-up view of a murion
Moray eels have been fished and consumed in the Canary Islands since time immemorial.

The song of the moray eel is one of the so-called "working songs" typical of the Canary Islands. It is a call song, almost a ritual, a repetitive tune accompanied by whistles that is used to lure the fish and lull them to sleep. Here is a link to the song The moray eel fisherman by the Canarian group Los Sabandeños.

Paula Vera

Photos: Aquarium Poema del Mar

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