Just over a hundred years ago, eels lived in rivers, lakes, ditches and marshland all over Europe. They were exploited by small-scale farmers, supplying a welcome source of food and fat.
By the end of the 1800s, however, water works increasingly blocked the immigration of young eels, water pollution increasingly troubled the production, and the small-scale fishery largely vanished.
Until the 1960s, modernisation and expansion of the remaining fisheries more than compensated for the ongoing decline – eel fisheries essentially prospered, hardly aware of the looming future.
Since the 1960s, however, commercial catches have consistently been in decline. From over 20 000 tons in the 1950s, to not more than 2 500 tons now in Europe as a whole. In the UK, commercial catches have decreased from around 2 500 tons before World War II, to around 400 tons in recent years.
The situation deteriorated rapidly after 1980, when recruitment of young eel from the ocean crashed, decreasing for thirty years in a row.
Though the details differed from site to site, this decline was observed all over Europe. The problem to manage, to protect and recover the eel stock is essentially a shared, European problem.
In the early 1990s, the need to protect the eel finally became recognised and unavoidable – but what to do? For years, the discussions continued, discussing different solutions. By 2007, a European action programme was finally adopted, addressing both the urgent need to protect, as well as the diversity in impacts and circumstances in different countries.
This European action plan comprised two actions. Firstly, the EU Eel Regulation (the internal protection plan): all EU Member States were obliged to develop a national eel management plan, adapted to their local circumstances but with a uniform goal (reduce impacts and mortalities).
Secondly, CITES listing (setting international trade restrictions): the import/export of eel to/from the EU was regulated in order to avoid that excessive international trade would undermine the internal-European protection programme. Since 2010, the import/export to or from the EU is effectively banned completely.
Commercial and recreational fisheries, water management, water pollution, migration barriers at sluices and pumps, new parasites and diseases, cormorants, and possibly climate change are all potentially involved in the decline of the stock.
Eel management is not a simple issue. Europe has an open internal market: young eels, caught in one country, can rather easily be transported to another, and then flown to China. Police and customs actions within different countries are quite effective, but transport from one EU-member to another, the paper-trail is often completely erased.
After the trade of young eel to Asia was banned in 2010, an illegal export began – or more correctly, the trade that was legal before, continued on an illegal basis. Eel smuggling into Asia is now Europe’s largest wildlife-crime in monetary terms.
Now after decades of negligence and decline, the EU eel policy is a success: awareness of the situation is growing; protective actions are taken all over Europe; and debates on the causes, available options, and potential consequences have intensified.
Why has the Eel Regulation and the CITES listing now become a success?
First of all, this is a coordinated protection plan, covering the whole of Europe (and more). Similarly, it is not an authoritarian approach, dictating over-simplified actions to all involved. Instead, the responsibility for implementing tailor-made action is handed over to national governments, triggering societal discussions between countrymen-stakeholders.
And finally, the Eel Regulation advocates a comprehensive approach, addressing fisheries (legal and illegal, commercial and recreational), habitat-related issues, hydropower, and whatever impacts more.
However, ten years after the start, it is also clear that both the EU Eel Regulation, and the CITES listing currently are having implementation problems and are not yet achieving the full desired effect.
For the Eel Regulation, fisheries have been reduced, but non-fishing actions are much harder to achieve. For the CITES listing (closing the trade across outer borders of the EU), the discovery of extensive smuggling networks, demonstrate the need for increased effectiveness.
In 2007, the political decision to protect the eel was taken in Brussels; in 2009, the very first eels (silver eels) were actually protected; in 2011 (two years of ocean migrations later), the first positive effect could have occurred.
Lo and behold, that was exactly observed. Since 2011, the thirty-year decline in recruitment of young eel from the ocean halted, turning into a slight increase.
Though the stock is still only a faint copy of what it has been before, this indicates that protection policies can have an impact, and complex problems can be reversed, even if they involve all of Europe.
It will take a long time to achieve the full recovery and the level of protection for the eel is not yet as good as we intended to achieve. Overall, however, the trend is as positive as could have been expected.
This improving picture strongly urges all parties involved to implement the eel protection policies further and to polish up what actions have already been taken. There will then be good hope that the recruitment of young eel will increase even further.
After more than half a century of gloomy deterioration, there are now good reasons for optimism: we’ve got the eel by its tail again.
Dr. Willem Dekker is the director of science at the Sustainable Eel Group. Since he began his research on the European eel in 1984, he has chaired the Eel Working Group, a joint group of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and the European Inland Fisheries Advisory Committee and developed the European Regulation establishing measures for the recovery of the species. He also works at the Freshwater Institute of the Swedish Agricultural University in Stockholm where he focuses on the assessment and management of the eel fisheries throughout Europe.
Image: Anders Asp