Despite EU management framework being in place for over 10 years, the European eel remains critically endangered.
The EU measures for eel recovery were adopted in 2007 (EC 1100/2007) and is often referred to as the “eel regulation”. It has to be implemented by all Member States assessed to be within the current geographical range of eel, excluding the Black Sea states and some inland countries.
Member States must establish Eel Management Plans for river basins identified as natural habitat for European eel, or may designate all of its national territory as one “eel river basin”, resulting in a very variable approach across the EU. The recovery measures are accompanied by an EU trade ban put in place in 2010, halting all trade in eel with countries outside the EU, as well as the more recent temporary eel fishing closures intended to protect eel migrations.
More than a decade later, recent assessments 1 , 2 show that implementation has been delayed, piecemeal and focused on efforts with little discernible effects on the eel population’s recovery. Notably, the ICES Special Request Advice to the EU from May 2022 on the national implementation of the Eel Management Plans concluded that no overall progress has been made on reaching the EU objectives for eel and that “a consistently increasing trend in escapement was detected in only one EMU”.
Eel Management Plans and national implementation
A European Commission proposal for a joint management plan on eel was published in 2005 in response to scientific advice and concern from stakeholders regarding the decline of the stock.
The agreed recovery plan (EC 1100/2007) provides a joint management framework across the EU, but relies on national implementation. As the European eel is a migratory species, straddling both marine and fresh waters, it is necessary to take a range of recovery and management measures in freshwater and not just in EU waters. Therefore, national Eel Management Plans (EMPs) are a central feature of the regulation. All Member States with waters within the geographical range of the population were obliged to prepare EMPs by 31 December 2008, for implementation in 2009 at the latest.
The objective of the eel regulation and each EMP is set out in Article 2.4:
“The objective of each Eel Management Plan shall be to reduce anthropogenic mortalities so as to permit with high probability the escapement to the sea of at least 40 % of the silver eel biomass relative to the best estimate of escapement that would have existed if no anthropogenic influences had impacted the stock. The Eel Management Plan shall be prepared with the purpose of achieving this objective in the long term.”
The EMP must include a target level of escapement for each eel river basin, as well as an analysis of the present situation of the eel population in that basin. However, according to the regulation, it is up to each Member State to determine which measures will be used to attain, monitor and verify the objective of 40 % silver eel escapement. The Member States may define the means depending on local and regional conditions.
Article 2.8 lists a number of possible measures that may be included in the national management plans, such as: a reduction of commercial and recreational fishing, restocking measures, aquaculture related measures, and “structural measures to make rivers passable and improve river habitats, together with other environmental measures”.
Each Eel Management Plan shall include measures to promptly reduce eel mortality caused by other factors than fishing (Art. 2.10), such as hydroelectric turbines, pumps and predators, as well as a description of control and enforcement measures in national waters (Art. 2.11). It shall also contain a timetable for reaching the target level of escapement, following a gradual approach and depending on an expected recruitment level (Art. 2.9).
Each Member State has chosen a unique route to eel recovery, with some opting for one EMP covering the whole country, and others a separate plan for each major river basin. While Sweden has one national EMP, Spain has 12 regional eel management units (EMUs) and a transboundary EMP with Portugal for the Minho River, and Germany is divided into 9 EMUs. Only Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria have not yet submitted a national EMP, but in Slovenia European eel was declared a protected species in 2004 resulting in a complete fishing ban.
It should be noted that while restocking does not does not have to be part of the national management plans, it is one of the most commonly used management measures and is included in virtually all the EMPs.
EU Member States have to report on progress in the implementation of their EMPs every 3 years (2012; 2015; 2018). Based on the progress reports, it is clear that while many management measures related to fisheries have been taken by Member States, there has been less focus on other management measures, such as improving habitats, reducing other anthropogenic mortalities, combatting parasites or predator control. An evaluation of the Eel Regulation was published by the European Commission in 2014 (COM 2014 0640) stating that “more attention should be given to management measures related to these non-fishing anthropogenic mortality factors, the majority of which has only partially been implemented by Member States”.
More recent assessments echo that conclusion and show that implementation has been delayed, piecemeal and focused on efforts with little discernible effects on the eel population’s recovery. Notably, the ICES Special Request Advice to the EU from May 2022 on the national implementation of the Eel Management Plans concluded that no overall progress has been made on reaching the EU objectives.
Annual eel fishing closures
In 2017, the Commission proposed to close all fishing for eel >12 cm in length in EU waters, in line with scientific advice. However, the EU Member States rejected this proposal. Instead, the first of a series of three-month eel fishing closures was part of a political compromise agreement – a Joint Declaration for eel recovery – to further strengthen measures for eel recovery.
The first temporal closures focused on protecting the migration of mature silver eels in EU waters. Since then, the closures have been extended to include both commercial and recreational fishing for migrating eels of all life stages – i.e. both glass eels and silver eels. For 2023, the closures were extended to six months (alt. 3 + 3 months) for commercial fisheries and a complete ban of recreational eel fishing in EU waters was put into place. A new Joint Declaration was also signed by the Commission and 16 Member States.
The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean has also agreed to annual eel fishing closures as part of its transitional management measures in Recommendation GFCM/42/2018/1, but the Mediterranean closures apply to all waters. As part of a new Recommendation GFCM/45/2022/1 to strengthen the transitional measures agreed in 2022, establishing a complete ban of recreational eel fishing and an extension of the temporal closures to 6 or 3+3 months.
Considering the scientific advice (ICES, 2022) of zero catch of all life stages in all habitats and zero non-fisheries related anthropogenic mortality, the temporal closures are insufficient to ensure recovery. FishSec and its partners would like to see a full closure until a clear recovery of the population has been scientifically verified – in line with the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy. Furthermore, the closures are not always implemented as intended – to protect eel migration.
FishSec published a report assessing these 3-month fisheries closures in 2021.