Jubilee puts eel in the spotlight

Published on July 2, 2019

The Sustainable Eel Group has celebrated their 10 year anniversary with a full week of eel-inspired activities, ending with a two-day conference in London. For a few days, this put a much needed spotlight on the state of European eel and all that ails it.

On its way from egg to mature silver eel, the European eel encounters many different threats, which has led to its current “Critically Endangered” status (IUCN Red List). According to Andrew Kerr, the SEG Chairman, European eel historically made up 50 % of the freshwater biomass by weight. We are a very long way from that today, even though glass eels still arrive in large numbers in the core areas around the Bay of Biscay and the UK west coast. With millions still arriving at the European coast line, it is perhaps hard to imagine it is threatened, but its distribution has shrunk and the population is down to somewhere around 1–10 % of earlier levels.

Aside from climate, natural predators and disease, eels are met with thousands of barriers, loss of habitat, pollution, pumps and turbines. It is also targeted by fisheries. Issues around trade and trafficking are of increasing concern. The valuable glass eels, which are used for restocking and in aquaculture, have also become the focus of international criminal gangs, smuggling it across the continents in suitcases.

The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) attempts to tackle all the different threats to the European eel through collaboration, information and funding for directs efforts. This was reflected at the conference, which had gathered 116 participants from science, NGOs, management and enforcement agencies, as well as the eel fishing and aquaculture sector. Six different thematic sessions ran over the two days, including trafficking, river and wetlands restoration, citizen science and eel consumption.

From trade restrictions to illegal trafficking

The EU agreed on an eel management plan in 2007, soon followed by a CITES-listing restricting trade, as well as an EU trade ban with countries outside the Union. Different countries have chosen different ways to implement the management plan, some more successfully than others. Some countries have closed all fishing for eel; others allow both commercial and recreational fishing, as well as aquaculture. There is also variable efforts to restore habitats and create fishways past barriers in the eels’ paths.

However, the illegal trade with glass eel is now estimated to be much larger than the legal catches for restocking and aquaculture. International criminal networks also involved in smuggling drugs, weapons and human trafficking, make huge profits from these tiny creatures, selling them on to buyers predominantly in China, Hong Kong, Japan and other East Asian countries. This has led to glass eels becoming a priority for Europol and enforcement agencies in several EU countries.

To help stop the illegal trade, scientists across Europe focus on methods to identify eel species quickly and affordably. We heard that handheld devices that can perform DNA tests within an hour will soon be available to enforcement agencies in the field. Methods to identify which water body an eel comes from are also being explored but are further from realisation. Other organisations try to mitigate the illegal trade by training airport and airline staff in spotting wildlife smuggling and raising the alarm.

Ways for people to get involved in helping the eel

Volunteers are becoming more and more important in monitoring the eels. In several countries so called “citizen science” projects have been set up in order to get a better idea of where the eels occur and how many of them there are. Monitoring is done mainly at night and with thousands of coastlines and waterways, large numbers of people are needed and many give freely of their time.

And while we heard from the European Commission that its recent evaluation of the EU eel management plan shows that much more effort is needed on national level to restore habitats, remove barriers and create safe eel passages, several examples of such work carried out by NGOs were highlighted.

Consumer choice can also make a difference. SEG works together with the commercial eel sector on ways to improve industry practices and support the recovery of European eel. SEG and its industry partners have developed a certification standard for responsible production, which has been the focus of some controversy over the past years. Together with The Good Fish Foundation, FishSec participated in a sometimes heated debate about the pros and cons of such a system and how it differs from other certification schemes and different sustainable seafood rating systems.

While a “best practice” certification scheme has some merits, it can be confusing for both the retail sector and consumers – and could possible lead to increased consumtion; something most environmental NGOs are currently firmly against.

In the end, everyone agreed that they shared the SEG vision, even if the views on how to get there and how long it would take perhaps differed:

”Healthy wild eel populations distributed throughout their natural range fulfilling their role in the aquatic environment and supporting sustainable use for the benefit of communities, local economies and traditions.”

The UK Fisheries Minister Robert Goodwill also briefly attended the conference and presented SEG awards to individuals from the commercial, scientific and environment sectors for outstanding contributions to eel conservation.


For more information related to the SEG events, see the links below.