Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Paul Eccleston’s article in Fish2Fork

Paul Ecclestone from fish2fork wrote this article following a visit to the Severn 2 May 2010

A full moon brings a racing tide and racing hearts.

A 9.2m high Bore surges down the River Severn carrying away all in its path.

As well as the usual river detritus of branches and weed this includes a brave and hardy surfer who tries and fails to hitch a ride on the foot-high wave thrown up as water is forced down the bottle-neck of the estuary.

He is at the very spot outside Gloucester where almost 2,000 years ago the Roman legions forded the river at low tide during the conquest of Britain.

On the banks the Severn elvermen are already in their favoured spots sifting the water with their traditional hand-held nets. They know the tide will also be carrying with it an untold bounty of tiny glass eels or elvers.

Much of the European eel’s complicated and constantly changing lifecycle remains a mystery to marine scientists but the elvermen know as much as anybody about the eel’s run up the estuary, from February to May each year, and the few weeks, depending on time, tide, weather and conditions, when they can be caught in their thousands.

In 1979 a dozen men between them took 1,000 kilos – almost a ton – of fish in one night but times have changed and an elverman would be happy with half-a-kilo in one night which would earn him about £100 when they are sold on to the local dealer.

It is a daunting statistic that where there were once hundreds of commercial eel fishermen on the Severn, there are now none. Only the die-hard enthusiasts continue the elverman tradition and mostly they come from families who have fished the Severn for eel for generations.

With their eight-foot long aluminium poles carrying a metre-wide fine-mesh net they search for their quarry at night in the quieter waters at the river’s edge which the glass eels prefer as their migratory instincts take them upstream. When the net is retrieved every few minutes it might contain 50 baby eels or possibly none at all.

At this stage of their development the almost-transparent fish – hence ‘glass’ – are about three years old. The size of a small earthworm, they look like bootlaces encased in a translucent gel as they are tipped with infinite care from the net into a plastic bucket. The fish are delicate and worth a fraction of the price if they are damaged.

I watched as one of the fishermen, Dave Smith, 52, methodically placed his net into shallow water relying on the current to sweep the eels into it. He works quickly from his ‘tump’, a sandy piece of shoreline which costs him an annual £75 licence fee plus a further £65 for the right to fish from it.

Knowing the tide will soon arrive and the eels will disappear he lifts the net from the water with more urgency, tipping fish into his bucket. Sometimes there is only a handful but then more appear and within 10 minutes he lands about 50 eels but he will need many times this amount, maybe 60 times, to make up a kilo. A ton equates to three or four million individual glass eels.

“My father worked at the tar works and sometimes he’d take me with him. When he finished work we would fish for eels. Now my son fishes and I hope his daughter will do the same. It’s something that is passed through the generations,” he says.

“But if you do it only for the money, you are wasting your time because the money isn’t here anymore. But to pull a net out with 500 elvers in it is an amazing feeling.”

The right tide might mean fishing for several consecutive nights in all conditions and often until the early hours of the morning to get a decent amount of fish but even then it is not guaranteed. Catches fell off a cliff in 1983and have never really recovered which begs the question: if the eel is disappearing should fishing be allowed at all?

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) stock is in decline across its traditional territories around the rivers of northern Europe. Recruitment – the vitally important arrival of glass eels after an epic journey across the Atlantic – fell in the 1980s to about 10 per cent of its former levels followed by a further fall to 1-5% since 2000.

Fishery catches have gradually declined over the second half of the 20th century, down to less than half their former level.

Unsustainable fishing and the effects of human activity on the eels’ wetland habitats and migratory patterns together with disease and possibly a change in ocean temperatures caused by global warming were blamed for the catastrophic collapse in numbers.

Following intervention by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) an international stock protection and recovery plan was drawn up.

In 2003 the EU began its own plan to protect the eel with each member country being required to draw up its own Eel management Plan (EMP) for each eel river basin on its territory with a core aim of allowing a 40 per cent of silver eels – the mature adult – to escape back to the sea. The eel can take up to 16 years to reach maturity in rivers before the migratory instinct takes them back to the Sargasso Sea where they are believed to spawn and die. At the end of her life a female eel can lay between 10-30 million eggs.

Member states were also ordered to take other conservation measures such as reducing fishing, introducing restocking and maintaining river systems and wetlands. Eels less than 12 cms in length by 2013 were to be reserved for restocking.

Gulf Stream currents take billions of the developing eel eggs from the Sargasso to the west coasts of Spain, France and the UK where they enter the river systems. The majority of the elvers are channelled by the Bay of Biscay into French river estuaries where about 75 per cent of the European eel catch is taken. In the wild the mortality rate is cruelly high and only about one egg in a million will survive to full maturity.

One of the strongest arguments for eel farms is that 90 per cent of elvers taken from the wild will survive to maturity in controlled conditions.

In the UK the eel season lasts from February to May with most fish caught in April and the River Severn is by far the biggest fishery. Virtually all the elvers caught in the Severn are used for restocking. In France the majority of elvers are caught by small trawlers using wing nets and trawls while in the UK the only lawful way of catching eels is by the hand net system which has been in place for centuries. The French methods cause much more damage to the fragile eels and a morality rate of 10-15 per cent in the first few days is not uncommon.

In the UK The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), a partnership of environmental, conservation and fishing communities, which works and campaigns for a sustainable management and capture system, has complained that too much of captured French eels are sold for profit in Asia leading to a shortfall in the numbers needed for restocking across Europe.

The SEG’s chairman, Andrew Kerr, says: “We have evidence from China that France has sold much more than its 14.5 tonne quota – possibly as much as 25-30 tonnes. If they export more than than they are allowed, then the system is meaningless.

“We need a regulated fishery, properly controlled and policed, otherwise it cannot be sustainable. The current system is deeply frustrating because if people see others are getting away with it, it encourages them to break the law as well.”

The SEG backs the EU’s Eel Recovery Plan and the maintenance of a viable and environmentally sustainable fishing industry through a clear approach to management and sustainability of the eel stock across Europe. The plans would include reducing human impacts, the installation of eel passes, habitat restoration and re-stocking.

One of its major objectives is to produce eel which has full traceability and which consumers could buy confident that it came from a sustainable eel fishery and that the fish had been caught and reared on farms in an environmentally friendly manner.

The SEG says on its website: “European Farmed eel is a very sophisticated product that has been grown and husbanded under EU farming and health directives – two and a half kilo of baby eel produces one ton of adult eel.

European Eels are farmed in enclosed re-circulating water systems which are an environmentally sensitive method of production with sound welfare and low incidence of disease. These standards are set by European Food Standards Agency. The survival rate of baby eels to 5 grams is in order of 90% and more than 80/85% reach the market weight. By contrast in the wild and under natural recruitment and development conditions,  only a fraction of 1% of baby eels are likely to survive to breed. Farming can release the pressure on the wild stock.”

It concludes: SEG’s conclusion is that it is ‘safe’ to eat eel but it must be from a sustainable source.”

The SEG says the Severn Estuary, one of the major glass eels fisheries in Europe, still appears to have a surplus supply of glass eels even at a level of 10-15 per cent lower than former levels. It argues that the population is similar to those of 1980s, that there is no link between volume of glass eel arrival and adult stock and that, and that, to date, there has not been a similar decline in adult eels.