Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

EU Eel Regulation 15th Anniversary

Original post by Willem Dekker 11/06/2022

Hurray, hurray! A big congratulation to EU Maritime & Fish: today is the fifteenth anniversary of the EU Eel Regulation. And a big congratulation to EU Commission DG-Environment (DG-ENV) too, because this is also the fifteenth anniversary of the CITES listing of our eel. Two anniversaries on one sunny day.

On June 11th, shortly after 09:00 – now exactly fifteen years ago – Europe adopted its essential two policies for protection and recovery of the dwindling European eel stock. A key event for the development of responsible management for this shared resource – I will elaborate on that here below.

In 1857, the Conseil Général de la Vendée (Fr) reported that “the eel stock is so abundant that absolutely nothing can make one fear for the decline of this stock”. Well, those times are long over, alas. In the past 150 years, we changed the world of our eel completely: Open estuaries, unblocked rivers, free-flowing streams, undrained marshes – all of that is largely gone. Not to speak about pollution, eutrophication, acidification, hydropower-generation. Changed forever. And hence, the eel stock declined tremendously – to something like a few percent or less.

Those 150 years, there were intermittent, wide-spread reports describing the decline of the eel stock. Modernization kept the fisheries going for a long time (only after 1960: catches 5% down per year). Actually, the glass eel recruitment crash (-15% per year), which dominates our thinking now, is just very recent (1980-2011).
Houston, we have an Eel Problem. While many things about eel remain mysterious, the stock itself is in a very long-lasting decline. Address the mysteries first – or find a way to protect, despite all those mysteries? In the early 1990s, I shifted attention to the latter.
The eel stock is distributed over almost all of Europe, and the Mediterranean – in just a single stock. Hence, the centennial decline of the stock is our shared problem, which none of us can solve on his/her own. We depend on each other.

For a century, one has pursued technical solutions for the Eel problem – without much effect. In the early 2000s, fishing restrictions (closing fisheries) were advocated, but no single measure fitted all circumstances across the continent, and a simple “closing fisheries” would just stimulate illegal practices. There is no feasible “one size fits all” to protect the eel. So we need to respect our differences. In varietate concordia.

Today’s anniversary Regulation made a fundamental break-through: 1. Chopping up the huge international problem into manageable, national chunks (distribute control), and 2. Making the national governments responsible for a locally adapted, adequate protection (subsidiarity). The Eel Regulation brought the EU house in order for the eel, and the CITES listing then added to that by “closing the back-door”. Doors closed, unwanted exports (legal or illegal) would not disrupt the EU-internal protection efforts.

The Eel Regulation and CITES listing were adopted in 2007, implemented around 2010. Many protective measures were taken, all over Europe. Surprisingly, the 30-year recruitment decline halted after 2011. To be honest: I had hoped for, but truly not expected such to happen. A remarkable good start of eel protection, a first success – but then, a kind of eel-fatigue crept in. Following the initial successes, most countries froze their actions, scientific evaluations hardly provided the essential feedback, and policies thus remained half-baked.
The recruitment of young eel has stabilized, not really recovered. The adult escapement target (40%) is often not achieved. We failed? Well, manage your expectations: neither recruitment, nor escapement could have truly recovered, as long as the protection level agreed in 2007 is not achieved.

On this Anniversary of the EU Eel policies, I think of the long period of ignorance and problem denial of before, and the ordeal to create public awareness and build up adequate action. So let’s celebrate the Eel Regulation and CITES listing today (and bake them off tomorrow).

To whom does this concern? Well: to whom not? The eel occurs all over Europe, and the quality of our freshwater is a concern for us all.  #EelRegulation #EelCITES

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