By Jason Holland, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from London
Published on 19 September, 2013
There are many elements conspiring against the eel’s survival. Almost all of these are the result of man’s activities, such as the removal of natural eel habitats, increased marine pollutants, the location of barriers to migration and the introduction of marine turbines and pumps. Climate change is also believed to have played a part in the decline. But not all enemies to the eel are unintentional consequences; overfishing and an unsustainable (sometimes illegal) eel trade are also major problems.
This month, European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution that called for the urgent implementation of fresh legislation to save the eel. Members of European Parliament (MEPs) urged the European Commission to table a draft law by March 2014, including sanctions against EU member states that are slow to provide the data needed to assess the stock.
“The eel is critically endangered and the member states are doing too little to save it. That is why the European Parliament calls on the Commission to present a new legislative proposal aimed at the recovery of European eel. The new law must close the loopholes in the current legislation which have led to the continued overfishing and unsustainable trade in eels,” said a statement from Isabella Lovin, member of the Fisheries Committee in European Parliament for the Swedish Greens.
MEPs have asked the commission to evaluate current restocking measures by the end of this year, paying special attention to how much they really contribute to eel recovery. The results of this evaluation must feed into the commission’s new legislative proposal, which must aim “with high probability,” to achieve the recovery of the European eel stock, said the voted text.
Furthermore, the MEPs also voted to oblige EU member states to report more often on the impact of eel stock management measures: once every two years instead of once every sixth year. Member states which do not comply with the reporting and evaluation requirements would have their eel fishing effort halved.
Huge efforts are already going into putting the eel population on a more sustainable footing. Leading from the front is the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), a Europe-wide group of scientists, policymakers, conservationists and commercial operations that introduced the Sustainable Eel Standard (SES) last year.
Under this eco-label, which takes the unique biological cycle of the animal into account, independent assessors review to what extent a commercial operation (fishery, collecting organization, farm or smoker) adhere to the strict standard. Each criterion is scored red (fail), amber (passes a minimum standard) or green (passes a high standard). A majority of green ratings are required to pass the standard and any reds will result in an overall fail.
The SES — a revised version of which was published in July — has been widely adopted by the eel industry across Europe since its arrival and the growing list of certified operations is available on SEG’s website.
“It’s now much more mature than when we started two and a half years ago,” Andrew Kerr, SEG chairman, told SeafoodSource. “The biggest market for eels is Holland, something like two-thirds of European consumption takes place there. It has 15 eel farms and 21 smokeries and virtually all are now working to the standard.
“The unfortunate problem is they can’t buy enough sustainable eel. We are now stuck: we have got a supply chain, we’ve got the quality assurance, inspection regimes and the commitment, but what we haven’t got is enough product,” he added.
Even the bumper elver harvest on the River Severn this year couldn’t fulfill the current demand, said Kerr.
The Severn is the historical hub for the U.K. eel industry. It’s from here that between March and July every year a small number of hardworking fishermen work the riverbank at night, using nets to catch matchstick-sized glass eels. Most of their catch now goes to restocking Europe’s wetlands, waterways and lakes.
This year, these fishermen caught 20 million young eels. It was the fourth consecutive year of improved catches and included a record-breaking 4 million in one night. Eighty percent of the total catch was dispatched for restocking purposes around Europe.
“It makes perfect sense, because the natural recruitment isn’t reaching sufficient volumes in places like Holland, Germany and Denmark,” said Kerr, adding that if those fish hadn’t been collected, the likelihood is only a fraction of a percent would have survived.
The remaining 20 percent from the Severn’s season went for eventual human consumption and despite the SEG’s conservation agenda, it believes it would be more damaging to take the radical approach of demanding that people stop eating eels.
“We are not against the enjoyment of eels and we recognize that if we somehow switched this off and people stopped valuing the eel then it will get forgotten — it will not recover if it isn’t valued. Through the standard, we say, ‘make sure it’s done in a really sustainable way and that the fishing is part of the relocation of eels.’”
Kerr is keen to see more fisheries follow the standard and “adopt the attitude” of those that are already certified. In particular, he feels there are fisheries in France and Spain that use trawlers with large nets to catch eels that could take a more sustainability minded approach.
If done slowly, the trawling doesn’t damage the eels, but some fishermen are prone to “speed trawling” and if the net has a large mesh then the fibers scrape the mucus membrane from the eels’ tails. This mucus is the scale-less fish’s only form of protection and once removed the animal is open to infection. Large numbers die as a result, he said.
As for the illegal trade of glass eels, Kerr conceded it remains an “embarrassing” problem. A number of illegal export rings based in Europe have been broken in recent years but reports suggest the smuggling hasn’t abated.
“The SEG knows it is going on and we will expose it wherever we find it. We don’t want to be party to it,” he said. “We have taken our certificate away from organizations where we have had good evidence that they broke the rules.”