Around a year ago I wrote a post about jellied eels and eel, pie and mash houses in London and I have been meaning to write a sequel on the subject of eel fishing and conservation for a while, as well as looking at some traditional recipes for the slippery fish.
The European eel Anguilla anguilla is a threatened species; the IUCN has put it on its Red List as a Critically Endangered animal, yet it is perfectly legal to eat them – and fish for them if you have a licence – the funny thing is adult stocks of eel has remained stable for the last few decades. So why has the eel been given this Critically Endangered status? Well it is because the young eels – known as elvers in Britain, but more commonly known as glass eels – have had the drastic drop in population. Some of these populations have crashed by 95% in some areas. The paradox is: how can the adult population be stable whilst the young have diminished in number so much?
Well the short answer is that we don’t know! Elvers resupply our rivers of stock eels after a long migration from the Sargasso Sea where they were born. Understandably, this part of the life cycle is poorly understood, and all scientists and conservationists can do is count the number reaching our estuaries and rivers and monitor them carefully.
In Britain, the main inlet for elvers is the River Severn; indeed there are still a decent number of elvers swimming into its mouth every year. However, the population has dropped overall in Europe by 75% and so the spectacle of the great migration is no longer what it was:
In the month of April; the shores of the Severn are annually darkened with innumerable quantities of elvers, which are seen fringing the sides of the river a black ascending line, which appears in constant motion…When the elvers appear in the river they are taken in great quantities with sieves of hair cloth, or even with a common basket, and after being scoured and are offered for sale. They are either fried in cakes, or stewed, and are accounted very delicious.
Illustrations of the Natural History of Worcestershire, Dr Hastings c.1830
Elvers were an essential food source in more ways than one according to Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group: ‘entire communities would live on them; indeed … they were even used to fertilise the fields.’
A smaller-scale version of what Dr Hastings saw on the River Severn
See the story and video here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8864000/8864173.stm
The UK ‘elvering’ season is from February to May with its peak in April and it is legal to fish for them if you have the appropriate license; and it can be big business when they sell for £200 a kilo. They go for these huge prices because they are snapped up by the Chinese in order to restock their fisheries.
Elver fishermen have an obligation to fulfill if they want to go fishing for glass eels – 35% of their catch must be relocated upstream. Tiny elvers entering estuaries are often impeded from reaching rivers because of flood barriers. By physically moving them upstream they can do as nature intended and live their lives in British freshwater before slipping back to the Sargasso to breed. This seems to be working – numbers of elvers in the River Severn are on the up, though this could just be population fluctuation.
The Environment find a poacher’s oversized elver fishing net (from The Guardian 2010)
The ethical elverer after relocating a third of his catch, then sells the remainder to eel farms. The nearest ones to Britain are in Ireland and Holland. This is what the people at the Sustainable Eel Group say is the sustainable thing to do. Unethical elverers sell their catch on to people that have a penchant for elvers. He also uses huge oversized nets and trawlers – some nets can be up to 18m; compare this to the legal 2.5m net. (Amazingly trawling for elvers is still legal in Britain, though the number of eel fishing licenses are restricted.)
Have a look at this BBC report about elver poaching:
So what do we conclude here? Well jellied eels are not to be consigned to the history books – with careful monitoring there should be well-stocked eel fisheries. It’s simple: only buy farmed eels, not wild, and on no account never buy elvers.
The following two posts will be some eel recipes (some you should try and some you should not!)