Member States share concern for eel population in dire straits

Published on September 27, 2022

Speaking to the Fisheries Council yesterday, Commissioner Sinkevičius was clear that “status quo is not an option” for the management of European eel, considering the critical state of the eel population and the zero catch advice. While the Member States shared his concern for the stock, suggestions on the way forward varied, with Mediterranean countries being the most supportive of concrete proposals.

When the Agriculture and Fisheries Council met yesterday in Brussels, the Commission had requested a discussion on the future of the European eel stock and those depending on it, asking Member States to put forward what they consider the most effective measures to reduce eel mortality. This session followed a more informal discussion at the meeting of General Directors hosted by the Czech Presidency in Prague on 1–2 September.

Initiating the session, Commissioner Sinkevičius said he is deeply concerned about the state of European eel, the population of which has fallen by 90 % and shows no signs of recovery.  He emphasized the zero catch advice and the need for further measures, as well as the lack of EU progress on recovery so far. The Commissioner was clear that “status quo is not an option” for the management of European eel and that the Member States needed to step up their efforts substantially, taking a holistic approach and also using nature conservation and habitat restoration measures under the framework of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy.

While all the Member States said they shared the Commissioner’s concerns about the species and agreed that more needed to be done, only a few countries spoke in support of further measures related to fisheries. Finland took the floor to share its recent decision to ban eel fishing in all waters for 11 months of the year, while also focusing on habitat restoration for migratory species and new fines for illegal fishing. In Slovenia, eel is a protected species and Ireland closed all its eel fisheries in 2009 and is not considering re-opening them.

In general, Mediterranean Member States appeared to be much more open to strengthening protection as part of the eel management measures agreed under the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), with Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy expressing support for proposals currently on the table. Cyprus explained that eel is not common there, but that they have carried out scientific assessments recently and are considering creating national Eel Management Plan.

Many Ministers echoed the Commissioner’s call for a “holistic approach”, focusing not just on fishing, but on addressing migration barriers (hydropower), pollution and habitat degradation. The importance of fairness and coherence across the EU were spoken of several times, as well as a repeated pointing to great regional and national differences in the importance of eel fishing.

Several Member States were suggesting a revision of the EU’s eel regulation (EC 1100/2007), which hitherto has usually been described as “fit for purpose” even though national implementation of many measures – particularly addressing migration barriers, pollution and habitat loss – has been slow. Also, there were specific proposals that such a revision should include changing the overall objective of the regulation from a silver eel escapement target to a mortality target.

Overall, there were precious few specific suggestions for effective further measures to guide the Commission in developing its proposals in the coming months. Considering that the recent evaluation of the implementation of the national Eel Management Plans under the eel regulation showed that only 9 out of 84 EU eel management units (EMUs) met or exceeded the agreed escapement target – fewer than the 16 EMUs that met the target in 2012 – one cannot help but wonder when the situation will be urgent enough for Member States to really tackle all anthropogenic mortalities?

When the Commission tried to protect the spawning migration of silver eel in 2017, this was rejected in favour of a non-binding Joint Declaration on strengthening the recovery for European eel. The agreement resulted in implementation of the three-month eel fishing closures across the EU. Also, strides have been made in the Mediterranean since then, where a range of legally binding management measures for both marine and freshwater habitats were agreed under the GFCM in 2018 (Recommendation GFCM/42/2018/1). In the rest of the EU, it seems many of the urgent actions identified remain to be taken.