European eel

Perhaps you remember the stories your  grandparents used to tell about the abundance of eel that used to make their way through our rivers. Unfortunately, those times are far behind us, as nowadays, only 5% of the original stock remains.

There are several reasons for this decline . It is harder for them to complete their migration routes due to many barriers in the water. Eels are poached and illegally traded to Asian countries, where they can be sold for thousands of euros. In spite of these reasons, eel is still being fished. There is much room for improvement in the European legislation for this species.

Eel farms

One term that may be confusing to many consumers is ‘farmed eel’. If it was possible to farm eels, we might have found the solution for the survival of this species. However, baby eels do not survive in captivity and thus  farmed eel is nothing less than wild-caught baby eel which has been grown out in a nursery.

VISwijzer advice

Farmed eel or wild caught eel? It doesn’t matter. Every eel that is consumed is one too many. It is therefore advised to avoid eating it. Visit the extensive VISwijzer for more information.

Even though the eel is not a cute panda, it also deserves to be saved. Together with RAVON and with financial support from the National Postcode Lottery, we are trying to make a stand for the eel. Visit the Power to the Eel website and sign the petition!

What's going on with the eel?

In the past fifty years, the eel stock in Europe has declined by more than 90%. Things are going so badly that the eel has been given the status ‘critically endangered’ on the ‘red list’ established by the IUCN (the International Union for Nature Conservation).

What makes the European eel so special?

These eels can live in both fresh and salt water and have an extremely long lifespan (the oldest eel ever caught in the Netherlands was 85 years old). Eel also lead a rather bizarre life. In order to reproduce, they swim 6,000 kilometres to the Sargasso Sea (near Bermuda). The hatchlings then swim all the way back to Europe. A female eel takes 12 to 25 years to reach sexual maturity and dies after releasing her eggs. This means that an eel can reproduce only once in its lifetime. Exactly how that reproduction works remains a mystery.

Why are eels in such a tight spot?

Only fifty years ago, all of Europe’s waterways, including those in the Netherlands, were full of eels. Major causes of the species’ dramatic decline are barriers such as dams, locks and pumping stations, along with poaching, pollution, diseases and overfishing.

Is the European eel going to make it?

We certainly hope so; but that will not happen by itself. While fish all around the world are having a tough time, eels are particularly vulnerable because of their life cycle. As if that were not enough, eel is also a sought-after delicacy, not only in Europe but particularly in Asia. Hopefully, campaigns such as this will raise awareness among consumers, businesses and politicians and therefore provide much-needed protection for the eels. They badly need our help!

Can't eels be farmed like other fish?

Unfortunately not, although there is a great deal of research being done on the subject. While scientists have succeeded in getting eels to spawn, the newly hatched eels refuse to eat and subsequently die. There is also no scientific evidence to support that releasing baby eels into the wild is helpful, as it is unclear whether the restocked eels will find their way back to the Sargasso Sea. Although most of the eel eaten in the Netherlands does come from a farm, these farms simply raise glass eel caught in the wild and fatten them into large adult eel. Farming eel without any influence on the wild population is therefore not (yet) possible. 

Isn't anything being done at the European level?

The European Eel Regulation has been in force since 2007. These include international agreements on measures to improve the eel stock. The European Commission has asked experts to evaluate whether the Regulation has been effective. It turns out, after years of downward trend of glass eel recruitment it has finally has stopped and is increasing slightly– but the bad news is that glass eel numbers are still critically low. 

Did the member states fail to act? No, the problem was not one of inaction, as governments did enact some measures to reduce fishing. In the Netherlands a fishing closure has been implemented for the months September, October and November. Increasing attention is also being paid to circumventing the barriers in channels and rivers that prevent eels from continuing their journey. Such barriers include locks and pumping stations. These are where the major challenges lie, according to the experts. Removing or bypassing these barriers would yield real results. However, this would be costly, as there are tens of thousands of large and small water works in Europe. 

Can I still eat eel?

It is truly ‘red alert’ for the eel. As long as the European eel is listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN red list of endangered species, we recommend NOT eating eel. In the Netherlands, eel is being sold legally, but most supermarkets are not selling eel due to the critical state of the population. Unfortunately, it is still available at fishmongers, but because these eels are all from the same population it is not sustainable to buy them there either. 

Which fish should I eat instead of eel?

If you like smoked eel for its ‘smoky flavour’, try other tasty smoked fish such as smoked mackerel, sprats and herring. The best substitute is perhaps smoked trout. Another advantage is that this fish – unlike eel – can be farmed and bought with an ASC or organic label!

Would you rather like to taste something out of the Dutch channels? Then try invasive crayfish.

Is illegal trade of (glass)eel a problem?

The ‘street value’ of baby eels (glass eels) is higher than that of cocaine, as it is considered an Asian delicacy. One kilogram of glass eel can eventually grow into 3,000 adult eels. This is a very attractive prospect for poachers and smugglers. Each year, millions of glass eel are smuggled in suitcases into Asia. This illegal poaching and smuggling is serious business: in 2019, 5.7 tonnes of glass eel was intercepted by police and customs officials (according to Europol figures). 

Can eel fisheries become MSC certified?

No, right now they can’t. At the moment there is no truly sustainable certification for eel. ICES is very clear in stating that the mortality of eel needs to get back to zero, because we cannot miss even a single eel right now. This means that the best way to help the eel to survive is to not eat it. 

Want to know more about the eel?

Do you want to know more about the eel? Check out Power to the Eel’, Good Fish and RAVON started the ‘Power to the Eel’ campaign to let everybody know just how bad the situation around the European Eel actually is. This way everybody can make informed decisions and more pressure is being put on the political side of things. The campaign has come to an end and the petition was signed over 41,000 times! On the 21st of March it has been handed over to the government in The Hague. This happened next to a canal ‘the Prinsessegrachtwere the little glass eel are swimming during their journey from sea towards our inland waters.