Eel Regulation relevant but lacking in implementation

Published on May 7, 2020

The recent assessment of the European Eel Regulation concludes that it remains relevant but implementation of several aspects is poor. Authors suggests future efforts should focus more on addressing non-fisheries related mortality, as well as continued reductions in fishing mortality, especially of glass eels. The long-term use of restocking as a key measure is questioned, and the need for a population-wide approach emphasised.

The European Commission (EC) published its staff working document on Council Regulation EC 1100/2007 – the Eel Regulation – on 17 February (Executive Summary here). In early April, the external evaluation carried out by Poseidon and others was also published. Both are supposed to examine and assess the effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence, EU added value and sustainability of the European Eel Regulation and the national Eel Management Plans (EMPs).

Both the report and the EC staff working document conclude that the Eel Regulation is still relevant and that there has been some progress made across the EU, but that the status of the eel remains critical and that implementation has been slow and patchy.

Key recommendations from evaluation

Due to the scope and structure of the evaluation – the effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence, EU added value and sustainability – the external evaluation is lengthy but not always detailed, at times fragmented and somewhat repetitive. None of the reports focus particularly on the obligations to protect eel, as part of international agreements on biodiversity and regional conventions, aside from sections on coherence.

Some of the key recommendations made in the external evaluation are:

  • Implementation needs considerable improvement, particularly non-fisheries related anthropogenic mortality
  • Internationally coordinated research is needed to determine if there is any net benefit from restocking for the eel population.
  • Eel should be more widely used as an indicator of ecological status under the Water Framework Directive.
  • Good practices at national level should be compiled and disseminated to all countries home to European eel.
  • Better control measures are needed to reduce IUU fishing, especially of glass eels, supported by an EU-wide traceability system.
  • Greater emphasis on transboundary collaboration – repeating the benefits of a population-wide approach – and the need for a central coordinating body for the recovery of European eel.
  • Inclusion of the European eel on the species list under the Habitats Directive
  • A more cohesive funding approach for the national Eel Management Plans.

Objectives and targets in the regulation

The Eel Regulation has a fairly limited number of targets agreed to aid the recovery of the Critically Endangered European eel (Anguilla anguilla), all of which are to be implemented through national Eel Management Plans (EMPs):

  • To reduce anthropogenic mortality enough to allow at least 40 % of “natural levels” of silver eel to escape – swim into the sea to reproduce.
  • The use of at least 60 % of the EU glass eel catch for restocking in natural eel habitats in the EU.
  • In the absence of an EMP, ensure at least a 50 % reduction of fishing effort or catches of eel.
  • Member States operating an eel fishery in Community waters also have to ensure at least a 50 % reduction of fishing effort or catches of eel.

As a part of their EMPs, Member States must include:

  • Measures to attain, monitor and verify the objective of reducing eel deaths caused by humans (40 % silver eel escapement).
  • A time table for reaching the 40 % escapement target.
  • Control and enforcement measures in their own waters (not Community waters), including a catch monitoring system.
  • Countries with glass eel fisheries also have to include provisions for transfer of eels for restocking and an appropriate reporting system.

The Member States also have to fulfil some essential reporting requirements, among them annual monitoring and reporting of the trade and prices of glass eel.

The main objective is the 40% escapement target.


40% escapement target

According to the Eel Regulation (Article 2), all Eel Management Plans should aim to achieve – in the long-term – an escapement of silver eel to the spawning population that equals or exceeds a target set at 40 % of the potential biomass that would be produced under conditions with no anthropogenic disturbance. There is no timeline for achieving this objective, nor are any interim targets established, and Member States can choose how to achieve it.

The Commission concludes that silver eel escapement is still well below the 40 % target. In the 2018 national Progress Reports, only Ireland and Estonia reported having achieved this target, with another three countries partially achieving it: Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. The remaining countries had not yet achieved 40 % escapement, or it was unclear if they had.


The 60 % restocking target

In accordance with Article 7 of the Regulation, Member States with a glass eel fishery (eels less than 12 cm in length) are obliged to reserve at least 60 % of the glass eel catch each year to be marketed for restocking in eel river basins – for the purpose of increasing the escapement levels of silver eels.

This target was to be achieved by 31 July 2013, by gradually setting aside at least 35 % in the first year of EMP implementation, and then increase it by steps of at least 5 % per year. However, the evaluations show that the overall target of using 60 % of the total catch was only achieved in 2014; in 2018 it dropped to around 22 %. In addition, even though restocking is a target in most of the EMPs, those regional restocking targets were only met in six cases, with countries reporting cost, availability and lack of funding as underlying reasons.

Regarding the practice of restocking, ICES suggested in 2018 that it should only take place where survival to silver eel escapement is high and that it should not be used as an alternative to addressing anthropogenic mortality. The external evaluation concludes that restocking is “a short to medium term measure that is unsustainable and should be phased out as natural recruitment improves, and water course connectivity is improved”.


The 50% fishing reduction

According to Article 4.2 of the Eel Regulation, Member States who have not submitted an EMP (if they have not been exempted), are obliged to reduce fishing effort or catches by at least 50 %, relative to the average from 2004–2006. The reduction was to be achieved gradually over 5 years, beginning on 1 July 2009 and initially by steps of 15 % per year. The same level of effort or catch reduction applies to all Member State’s fisheries for eel in Community waters (Art. and 8.1).

In the first case, Member States are also obliged to report on the level of fishing effort that catches eel (Art. 9.1 b)) – yet the Commission states in its internal staff document that “the Eel Regulation does not provide for a reporting  mechanism in this regard” (p. 26), and no figures are available.

The most common management measures under the national EMPs were aimed at controlling the commercial and recreational eel fisheries, ranging from reducing fishing, restricting the use of certain gears to closed areas and/or seasons. However, it is also unclear in both evaluation documents, if the target to reduce fishing effort/catch by 50 % in Community waters has been reached.

The external evaluation by Poseidon shows effort figures over time for six of the major eel “producers” in the EU: Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Poland. France has not submitted any effort figures, so could not be included. These figures show that effort has declined by > 90 % in Sweden, by > 50 % in Italy, by < 50 % in Denmark and by 25 % in Germany. In the UK and Poland, however, there has been a sharp increase by 135 % and 180 % respectively.

According to the Commission document, overall eel fisheries landings varied between 8 000 and 10 000 tonnes until the early 1990s, when they declined to the current levels of around 2 500 tonnes since 2010 onwards, where they are now broadly stable. Recreational catches remain largely unquantified.

That indicates that implementation of this target, which was to be reached within 5 years (by 1 July 2014), may also be patchy, though it is not clear which countries actually have eel fisheries in Community waters and how the 50 % reduction applies.

Overall conclusions

It is clear from the evaluations and the most recent ICES advice (2019) that the European eel stock has not yet recovered to any significant degree. The decline in recruitment seems to have levelled out since 2010, though at a historically low level.

In its report, the Commission concludes that silver eel escapement is still WELL BELOW [our emphasis] the 40 % target. In addition, while some MS have reduced fishing effort and mortality, in others it has increased.  There is also widespread illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing for eel across the EU – particularly for glass eels. Efforts to reduce non-fisheries related mortality – another important way to increase silver eel escapement – have been insignificant.

The recovery of the European eel is a long-term process that will take decades rather than years to progress. However, there is still much room for improvement in the way and the pace that the EU Member States aid this recovery. There is also scope for the Commission to take a more active role in monitoring the national efforts and compliance, than it has done in the past.