Fisheries Council deal: eel fishing closures in EU waters remain but are watered down again, allowing continued fishing for much of the peak migration period for glass eel and possible concessions in the Baltic region. The ban on recreational fisheries in marine waters remain. The decision is taken against stark and clear scientific advice calling for zero catches of all life stages in all habitats and an already agreed provision in the Mediterranean including freshwater.
After discussions started on Sunday afternoon, the EU Fisheries Council has finally reached agreement on additional measures to protect European eel in the coming year, as part of the overall agreement on fishing opportunities for 2024.
The Commission had proposed a continuation of this year’s six-month eel fishing closure in EU waters, including coastal waters, estuaries and lagoons, during the peak migration period. The proposal already included a 30-day allowance during the main migration, referring to socio-economic considerations. For glass eel, another 30 days of fishing was to be allowed if landings were used solely for restocking under the eel regulation (1100/2007).
Despite these exemptions, France again led a push-back against the proposal defending its glass eel fisheries. The resulting deal states that the closures should cover the main migration periods of European eel but extends the already generous glass eel fishing allowance to 30 + 50 days in Atlantic waters.
– With a peak migration period of about 3 months, one has to wonder how much migration is left to protect after 80 days? says Niki Sporrong, Senior Policy Officer & Eel Project Manager at the Fisheries Secretariat.
The scientific advice on fishing opportunities for European eel in 2024 repeats the zero catch for all life stages in all habitats in 2023, including catches for restocking and aquaculture, and that all other human-induced mortalities should be zero as well.
– It cannot be any clearer. We have a critically endangered species with a zero catch advice going back 20 years and still many Member States continue to fight against fishing restrictions. The Commission proposal wasn’t even in line with EU commitments and objectives of the CFP.
Many argue that it is not more fisheries restrictions that are needed to save European eel. It is true that most likely there are many different causes behind its dramatic decline – down to much less than 10 % of the numbers seen in the 1960s in most waters. What is needed is not just fisheries restrictions, but a concerted action to address multiple threats to its recovery, including habitat restoration, pollution and climate change.
With the low numbers we see today, however, a lack of suitable habitats and migration routes is not the key issue in most Member States. They need to be addressed for long-term recovery but today – right this moment – we could have protected the mature eels that are ready to start their journey to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce; to make more eels. Fisheries Ministers did not, even though they have taken some steps in that direction since the Commission tried to close the fishery for silver eel in 2017.
Instead, they tend to say that the EU needs to do more to address the other threats; that the fisheries have done enough. Considering the obligation to address these other threats have been in place in the eel regulation since 2007, one cannot help but wonder who they are arguing with?!
– This decision is really not a great deal for eels. It may not even result in lower catches next year. The EU really must get serious about giving the European eel population a better chance to recover, says Niki Sporrong.
Notes to editors:
 The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) population has been declining for a long time and is classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2018).
 The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has advised zero catch of all life stages, in all habitats and for all purposes, including restocking activities and aquaculture, since 2021. For 20 years, ICES has advised that all anthropogenic mortality should be kept as close to zero as possible since 2003 (ICES, 2023).
 ICES data on recruitment shows a dramatic decline since the assessment baseline (1960–1979), and no significant recovery. Glass eel recruitment continues to be very low. This year, the estimate for the North Sea area is among the lowest ever seen at 0.4 % of the baseline average. For “elsewhere Europe” it was 8.8 % – a decrease again from last year’s slight increase mainly in Ireland. Yellow eel recruitment in 2022 was only 9 %.
 Even without defined biological reference points, it is ICES assessment that the European eel population is well below any potential reference points, such as MSYBtrigger and Bpa/Blim.
 Since December 2017, there has been a provision within the annual TAC and quota regulations for a closure of all eel fisheries in EU waters for initially three consecutive months, and then in 2023 an additional 3 months. Most Member States allow continued fishing in inland waters.
 A Council Regulation (1100/2007) establishing measures for the recovery of the stock of European eel was agreed in 2007. Since then, 16 years after its adoption, no notable recovery has been observed in the European eel population; this was confirmed by Special Request Advice on the national implementation last year: https://www.fishsec.org/2022/05/30/scientific-evaluation-no-overall-progress-on-eu-eel-recovery-targets/ .
 Only two EU countries – Ireland and Slovenia – have prohibited all fishing for the European eel, despite the fact that it is also on the European Red List of Freshwater Fishes. Six EU countries still landed over 100 tonnes in 2022: the Netherlands (538 t), France (265 t), Germany [extrapolated from latest reported landings of >200 t], Denmark (163 t), Poland (115 t) and Sweden (115 t). Outside of the EU, Turkey, United Kingdom and Tunisia also reported landings over 100 tonnes.
 Trends in landings – reported commercial landings of yellow and silver eel continue to fall overall. In 2019, the last year with complete figures, 3,962 tonnes were landed. In 2022, landings were around 2,168 tonnes, if we assume that Germany landed >200 tonnes based on numbers from recent years. However, the Netherlands stands out as the only country that has substantially increased its commercial landings in recent years, with commercial landings at 538 tonnes in 2022. While the overall trend for landings of yellow and silver eel is down, landings in Turkey, Italy and Lithuania increased in 2022. Egypt, which has a substantial fishery for European eel and mainly targets yellow and silver eel, does not report any data to ICES and is not included in the overall estimates.
 EU glass eel landings – in 2023, reported commercial landings of glass eel, a fishery completely dominated by France, were at 52.7 tonnes. In France, landings have been increasing since 2010 and peaked at 53.4 tonnes last year. This year, France reported landings of 48.6 tonnes – 92% of the EU catch. After Brexit, UK landings have fallen dramatically, from more than 3 tonnes to 900 kg in 2022. The Basque Country in Spain still allows a regulated recreational fishery for glass eel, with preliminary landings in 2023 of around 1,300 kg.
 France is the only country to set quotas for eel. It divides its glass eel quotas into “for consumption” and “for restocking” in line with the EU eel regulation – 40/60 split. In the current fishing season between 1 November 2023 and 15 April 2024, a total quota of 65 tonnes is set. This is divided between marine waters and freshwaters, with 56 500 tonnes and 8 450 tonnes respectively. The total consumption and restocking quota are 26 tonnes and 39 tonnes, with 22 620 kg for consumption and 33 930 kg for restocking in marine waters.
 Recreational landings of yellow and silver eel – reported recreational landings increased from 240 tonnes in 2021 to 247 tonnes 2022, with marked increases in Denmark and Italy. In Germany, recreational landings most likely remain very high, higher than reported commercial landings, with 276 tonnes reported for 2019. Over half of all reported recreational landings take place in Germany. In Denmark, recreational landings (not angling) equalled commercial at 160 tonnes in 2022.
 Restocking involves catching wild glass eels in one place and letting them go in another, often spreading viruses and disease in the process. It has been used for decades in many countries – not as a conservation measure but in order to sustain fisheries for eel. Despite the prolonged practice, no net benefit to eel reproduction has been shown.
 Eels have a complex life cycle, going through several different life stages and generally live for 10–20 years. The very small, translucent eels arriving at European coastlines every year are called glass eels. When they reach brackish or fresh waters, they transform into less transparent elvers, and then grow into yellow eels, which live along our coasts, in rivers and lakes for up to 25 years. When mature, they transform again into silver eels, which will undertake the long journey to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.