We are often asked ‘ How can it be OK to fish and eat the highly protected European Eel?’.
Here we explain and answer this question
Who is SEG?
The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) is the leading international organisation working to accelerate the recovery of the European eel, whilst balancing the principles of people, profit and planet.
Our long term aim, following decades of decline in eel numbers is:
Healthy wild eel populations supporting sustainable use for the benefit of all.
Background to the European eel
An understanding of the European eel’s fascinating life-cycle is important. Adults migrate from European rivers 5,000 km across the Atlantic to spawn in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. They die after spawning. The larvae drift back to Europe on the Gulf Stream to populate the rivers, lakes and estuaries of Europe and North Africa. It is one, genetically similar population. On reaching the coast, they are 7 cm long, are transparent baby ‘glass’ eels before they start migrating up rivers where they grow into the bigger ‘yellow’ eels we are familiar with. After 5-15 years, these mature into ‘silver’ eels and return to the sea to spawn.
Life Cycle of the European eel Adult European eel
Why are eels important?
Eels are an important part of aquatic environments, being a recycler of nutrients and food for species such as otters, egrets, bitterns and herons. Across Europe, they provide fishing, food and livelihoods for about 10,000 people and legal trade worth €500M a year. They can be fished at all life stages: glass eels in estuaries, yellow eels in rivers and lakes and silver eels on their way back to the Sargasso Sea.
Are eel still declining?
Eel stocks had been declining for a century or more, ever since the industrial revolution. Arrivals of glass eels from the ocean saw a steep decline since the early 1980s and are now below 10% of that just 40 years ago. The main causes of the decline are: over 1 million migration barriers across Europe blocking access to 90% of habitat; loss of wetlands, being sucked into pumps and hydropower turbines; climate change impacting survival in the ocean; overfishing in the past, illegal fishing now, and introduced parasites.
In response to this decline, the EU Eel Regulation was adopted in 2009; trade outside of the EU was regulated under CITES in 2009; SEG was created in 2010. It also caused IUCN to place the eel on its Red List of Threatened Species.
At the last estimate in 2017, an average of 1.3 billion glass eels a year have been arriving to Europe. A more recent analysis of trends using ICES data suggest that numbers have been starting to rise again since 2011, just two years after the Eel Regulation’s protection. It is not at risk of extinction:
The trend in glass eel recruitment over the past decades. Left: on a normal, linear scale; right: the same data, on a logarithmic scale. The logarithmic scale enables to focus on the developments at low levels, as we experience now. Data: ICES (2019).
We face a challenging task. The European eel stock remains at a historical low, and many human activities have had an impact on it. Great efforts are underway to protect and restore the eel population.
The 2007 EU Eel Regulation made law for the ‘protection and sustainable use’ of the eel stock. It specified how human impacts must be reduced to a level that allows the species to recover. The SEG standard defines greater levels of protection than the Eel Regulation. By voluntarily complying with it, the commercial sector is playing a responsible stewardship role in the eel’s recovery.
The idea of fishing a protected species seems contradictory. Here we explain how this is possible…
When fisheries are banned, illegal fishing usually moves in. Legal fishing tends to ‘self-police’ and control the illegal activities. Banning eel trade is likely to lead to illegal fishing and trade to Asia.
Much eel trade is for ‘restocking’ for Eel Management Plans across Europe. That is catching and moving glass eels from areas where they are plentiful (and most would naturally die) to where they are sparse. This aims to create more eels overall across Europe.
Illegal trade is a major risk to the eel’s recovery. In 2017, Europol estimated that 100 tonnes of glass eels (about 300 million fish) were illegally exported to Asia. That is three times as much as the legal market in Europe, and a quarter of the estimated population. Tackling that will have a greater benefit for the eel than banning fishing. See the chart that shows these proportions. Crashing numbers of European glass eel arriving in Chinese eel aquaculture imply that enforcement efforts have successfully reduced eel trafficking since 2017 (Europol, WWCR).
Fishing pressure has already reduced by about half over the past 10 years. Many other human impacts haven’t yet been reduced by anywhere near the same amount. Reducing fishing further is unlikely to have little effect until hundreds of thousands of weirs, dams and other barriers to migration are removed or by-passed – these prevent eels populating their natural habitats; and flood and water supply pumps, and hydropower intakes are screened – these chop up and kill eels as they migrate.
The SEG Standard
The SEG standard is a series of measures to show when eel fishers and traders are acting responsibly. It has been developed with reference to, and assessed against, the baseline criteria of ISEAL’s sustainability codes of good practice.
Full recovery of the eel population will take many generations and decades as this diagram shows.
The SEG standard enables those in the legal supply chain to show responsible and ultimately sustainable practice, leading to full recovery of the eel in a step-wise and transitional approach.
Trading eel under the SEG standard:
Uses glass eels where they are plentiful and most die naturally, to enhance areas of low abundance where less die, aiming to create more eels overall,
provides high-quality food with minimal waste and
causes awareness of the eel’s plight and income to aid its recovery.
Fishing, trading and eating eel responsibly via the SEG programme aims to have a positive contribution to the eel’s protection, therefore aiding its recovery. The standard is based on the concepts of best practice and responsibility to minimise the impacts of fishing and trading on the eel stock. The standard is regularly reviewed. It continues to improve, stepwise, as we gain scientific knowledge and as we transition from irresponsible and unregulated, to responsible, well regulated and ultimately sustainable practices.
Scientific advice, guidance, policy and legislation guiding the content of the SEG standard are:
The EU Eel Regulation 2007
International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Working Group on Eels (WGEEL) advice
Making a positive contribution to eel protection
More about these here:
EU Eel Regulation 2007
The SEG standard actively aligns with the EU Eel Regulation 2007, which is for the ‘Protection and sustainable use of the eel stock’. The SEG standard goes further than required to be legal by this legislation.
The eel stock is widespread and scattered over many different habitats. In the absence of reliable information for the whole stock, ICES’ precautionary advice is to reduce all human impacts to as low as possible, and to aim for a 40% survival (of silver eel escapement) target. As discussed above, SEG sees that well-regulated fishing under the SEG standard is the most responsible, and lowest-achievable fishing pressure, and that other impacts such as barriers, pumps and illegal trade must be addressed with priority.
Guidance by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature)
The IUCN classifies the European eel on its Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. The main argument for that status is the rapid decline in recent decades. SEG considers that a stock as abundant and widespread as the eel is at no risk of extinction, but still needs responsible protection, and that a blanket ban on all fishing, would be counter-productive.
IUCN states in its 2016 Guidelines for Appropriate Uses of IUCN Red List Data:
‘8. The Red List is not, on its own, a system for setting conservation priorities’ and…
‘Well regulated trade can contribute positively to the conservation of some threatened species and may be essential for human livelihoods.’
So, the IUCN guidelines suggest that the eel can be fished as long as the trade is well regulated.
A positive contribution
Here we explain how SEG standard compliant fishing and trade can actually aid the eel’s recovery.
Much of the trade in glass eels is for restocking. They are moved from where they are plentiful and most die, to where they are sparse and more are likely to survive. This aims to create a greater number of eels overall and so a positive contribution to its protection – and one which makes up for those sold for eating. The following are examples of how parts of the SEG standard also aim for a positive contribution:
Criterion 1.1: Commitment to Legality. This aims to reduce the level of illegal fishing and export of eels so that (a) more are kept and used in Europe and (b) less are caught overall
Criterion 1.2: Contribution to Eel Conservation Projects. When a consumer buys a SEG or Eel Stewardship Fund labelled product, part of the purchase price goes towards eel conservation projects. Examples are: building eel passes to help eels migrate; in Holland, every autumn eel fishermen move 5 – 12 tonnes of silver eels (up to 10,000 fish) ‘over the dyke’ into the sea; financial support for SEG’s anti-trafficking work.
Criterion 2.1: Eel fishing is from a fishery that is meeting its escapement targets. The standard only accepts eel fishing from places where the populations are well-protected and, for glass eels, where there are surplus fish that can be moved to underpopulated waters.
Criterion 2.4: Mortality during fishing is minimised. Death due to poor handling must be less than 8%. This has driven better practice where, in some places, handling mortality used to be 50%.
Criterion 4.7: The required percentage of glass eels is used for restocking. The Eel Regulation specifies 60% of glass eels be used for restocking. The standard is issued only where this has been met.
The SEG Standard:
Aligns with the EU Eel Regulation, which is for the protection and sustainable use of the eel stock
Is compatible with IUCN Guidance on its Red List of Threatened Species
Enables well-regulated fishing or trade to have a positive contribution to eel protection
Supports the traceability of supply chains and anti-trafficking
Provides the individual fisher/trader/processor a means to show their trade is certified as responsibly sourced as indicated by the SEG or ESF logo:
Business to business logo Consumer facing logo
The SEG standard is driving a significant shift in the attitudes of those in the sector towards building a traceable, responsibly sourced supply chain from fishery to consumer.
There is reason for hope. The latest ICES data suggest that the eel is starting to recover.
So, we believe that it is responsible to fish, trade and eat
eel sourced from the SEG certified supply chain