A ban on eel fishing in the Atlantic has been proposed by the European Commission to try and recover the dwindling stock of the European eel. The European Eel is a critically endangered species with a dramatic stock size decline over the past 30 years. Conservation efforts have so far failed to deliver and scientific experts have repeatedly called for drastic management measures.
The number of eels reaching Europe has declined by 95%, with similar declines noted in the US and Asia, leading European scientists to declare that saving the European eel requires an all-encompassing, comprehensive approach. Scientists point to a combination of factors for the decline, including overfishing, parasites, and man-made barriers to the eel’s migration such as disruption to watercourses, and more recently, illegal trade.
Eels are born in the Sargasso Sea in the North West Atlantic, and as elvers, or glass eel, they cross the Atlantic with the Gulf Stream and eventually end up at the European coasts stretching from Egypt to Norway. They make their way further up in streams and lakes, where they can live for 10-20 years before they make it back to the sea. As fully grown (plain) eel, they make their way back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group commented “the eel story is one of fighting with man-made engineering over the past 150 years”.
Turbines in hydro power plants, dams, pumps and other obstructions are all responsible for eel mortality, and the EU-funded research project AMBER has mapped more than 1.3 million barriers which stop and kill migratory migratory species including eel.
Unlike other fish, the eel cannot be farmed. There is a very high demand for elvers, or glass eel, on the black markets in Europe and Asia. In June this year, the European Police Office – Europol – made 48 arrests in connection with eel smuggling, involving attempts to smuggle 4000kg of glass eel out of the EU with a total value of around €4 million.
Restocking by raising eels to release into the wild later has shown some success initially, but has shown little progress since 2015.
Scientists have said that a fishing ban would be perfectly in line with scientific advice, and the European Commission’s proposal to ban eel fishing has been welcomed by fisheries experts.