Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Is It Okay to Eat Eel – Meaning Will I Be Contributing to the Eel’s Demise?

The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) is committed to supporting the implementation of the European Eel Recovery Plan (Regulation 1100/2007) through the separate National and River Basin District Eel Management Plans.

These plans have been developed since 2007 (and often earlier) and have been scrutinised and are approved by DG Mare in Brussels, following advice from ICES (The International Council of the Exploration of the Seas).

The European Recovery Plan was developed in response to the ICES statement that ‘the European Eel was outside safe biological limits’ and the belief that recovery will take between 80 and 200 years even if all fishing ceased.

The Eel Management Plans purpose is the recovery of the eel and the maintenance of a viable and environmentally sustainable fishing industry – these plans collectively create a Europe wide coherent approach to the management and sustainability of the eel stock which supports a viable and environmentally sustainable fisheries industry.

The Eel Management plans seek to reduce human impacts with actions like habitat restorations, eel passes, managed fisheries and planned re-stocking of wetlands.

Across Europe a wide range of eel fishery exploitation practices take place and many are not sustainable where as some fisheries and processes can be described as sustainable – it is one of SEG’s most pressing goals to be able to advise the consumer which eel products have been delivered to the market in a sustainable way so that they can be eaten and enjoyed with confidence.

SEG has defined a sustainable eel fishery

 ” as one which is managed in line with an approved EU Eel Management Plan ”

And defined a sustainable eel product

as having been sourced from a sustainable fishery and supply chain, caught in an environmentally sensitive manner and grown or ranched in conditions that meet European Standards for Health, Bio-security, Welfare and the Environment”

SEG will promote the development of a standard for European Eel Products and an assessment process so that suppliers can demonstrate that these are met and consumers can then buy with environmental confidence.

In the mean time here is some general guidance as to what and where some of the most sustainable product may be found

  • Ideally Eel should only be eaten from sources where its origins are known and where the eel management plans have been approved. Traceability is a key requirement of these plans and it will eventually be possible to achieve transparency across the European supply chain
  • 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.
  • Even in these times of dramatically lower baby eel arrival many billions still drift and float onto the European Continental shelf and into the estuaries and rivers of Europe (it takes many millions to make one adult -natural mortality is massive) – it is impossible to say how many billions arrive and what proportion are caught, however a ton equates to 3 or 4 million individual glass eels. They are known to arrive throughout the year and the local fishing seasons coincide with local peaks. Baby Eels that are caught in the UK using hand nets which is a far more sensitive method with minimal by catch compared with Baby Eels caught in France and Spain where high speed trawling with nets is permitted. Most countries have no provision for commercial baby eel fishing within their Eel management Plans as the natural harvest is too disparate to make it viable. The restocking programmes and aquaculture are dependent on glass eel transportation from France, Spain and the Severn to the rest of Europe. SEG wants to promote environmentally sensitive catch methods.
  • Eating the wild eel is the most problematical some rivers can demonstrate sustainability – where as eating wild eel caught in a river basin district that is not achieving its targeted silver eel escapement would be by definition unsustainable.

SEG’s conclusion is that it is ‘safe’ to eat eel but it must be from a sustainable source – SEG will now take action to help consumers make an informed choice.