Eels in crisis after 95 pc decline

Eels in crisis after 95 pc decline

Mysterious loss

They ought to be wriggling through briny water and marshy flatlands in their hundreds of thousands right now.

But the mystery of the vanishing eels is troubling fisheries officials, conservationists and fishermen who for generations have hunted the curious animal. A conference in Somerset on the plight of the eel, which was attended by experts from across Europe, has been hearing this week that the eel is in crisis.

The number of European eels across the continent has declined by as much as 95% in the last 25 years, the Environment Agency says. Officials report that the number of young eels arriving in Britain’s estuaries, rivers and streams this spring is significantly down on last year.

Andy Don, an Environment Agency fisheries officer who has studied the eel for 20 years, said: “There is no doubt that there is a crisis. People have been reporting catching a kilo of glass eels this year when they would expect to catch 40 kilos. We have got to do something.”

But the action the Environment Agency is about to take is upsetting those who rely on the eel for their livelihoods. A ban on exporting eels out of Europe — they are a popular dish in the far east — is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences. Some argue that such moves will effectively kill off eel fishing.

Don admitted that it was not at all clear why eels seemed to be vanishing in such large numbers. “The bottom line is we just don’t know why they are struggling so badly,” he said.

One reason may be that man-made structures such as weirs and dams are stopping glass eels — young eels a few centimetres long — reaching the freshwater habitats where they mature. If this is true, the plight of the eel could get much worse as hundreds of hydro projects are planned in Europe.

Another theory is that a parasite may be killing them off, while some blame illegal fishing methods. At one point a kilo of young eels was worth as much as £500, tempting some fishermen to use illegal nets to scoop as many up as possible. A kilo is still worth £210.
Many believe the shifting of the Gulf Stream means that not so many glass eels are being swept from the Sargasso Sea close to Bermuda, where they are born, to the shores of Europe, while others say there was a surge in the number of eels a quarter of a century ago and the population is now returning to normal.

Peter Wood, managing director of UK Glass Eels in Gloucester, called for much more investment in measures to protect the creature rather than fishing being restricted. “In some European countries they spend hundreds of thousands of pounds,” he said. “Here they spend hardly anything.  We need every glass eel we can get hold of,” he said.

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