Eels have been having a tough time over the past 30 years or so, but with the elvering season in full swing on the rivers of the southwest, there are signs that the tide may be turning for this mysterious, fascinating and deeply delicious creature.
“In Frampton-Upon-Severn there used to be an elver-eating competition,” says Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG). “People would be given a pint of elvers, and whoever swallowed the most won.”
Back then, so many elvers – juvenile eels, also known as glass eels – arrived at the River Severn in the spring that the leftover catch was spread over fields to fertilize the soil. But during the mid-1970s Britain’s eel population saw a sudden and very nearly total collapse. Stocks declined by 95% and the European Eel was put on The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
There was no clear reason for the sudden decline. Scientists looked to the shifting Gulf Stream, which carries the baby eels from the Sargasso Sea to Britain, for an explanation. They looked at parasites, changing water temperatures and the dams that were preventing the glass eels from travelling upstream to feed in fresh water. “Flood defences and barriers used to be made out of wood,” says Andrew. “The glass eels could crawl through little leaks and cracks. But the steel and concrete flood defences that replaced them were impenetrable, so the baby eels couldn’t make it upstream to freshwater. A high percentage died in the saltwater estuaries.”
Conservationists mobilised, including the SEG, which was formed five years ago at Fishmongers’ Hall. Helped by their actions (click here to read more) and by factors that we don’t yet fully understand, eel numbers have begun to rise over the past few years, just as suddenly and mysteriously as they declined. Last year saw the biggest migration of elvers arrive in the UK for 20 years and this year there have been even more. “We haven’t put a figure on it yet, but people are talking about twice as much again,” says Andrew.
That explains the excitement among the hordes of eel fishermen gathering at the River Severn and other traditional migration sites, such as the River Parrett, which flows through Dorset and Devon. Each one will have bought a license from the Environmental Agency, paid a local farmer for a spot by the river, known as “a stump”, and will be waiting with their traditional hand-held nets for the tide, and the eels, to come in.
The best time for eel fishing is at night, so the fishermen wait by lantern-light. “The elvers hitch a lift on the bore, using the wave to travel upstream for maybe half an hour,” says Andrew. “When the wave ends, the elvers drop to the bottom, where the fishermen collect them with their nets. The elvers surrender themselves. The fishermen just stand there: they don’t even have to scoop, the elvers just fall into the net.”
“It’s a historic, traditional and artisanal way of fishing with very little by-catch,” says Andrew. Indeed, eels have been fished at the River Severn for centuries. The practice certainly predates the 12th century, when King Henry I famously died from over-consumption of lamprey eels.
This traditional approach both preserves history and the eels, says Dave Throupe of the Environmental Agency. He explains that the way that the elvers travel up the river in a group, or “cohort”, makes them susceptible to what he calls “dastardly deeds”. “People could easily string up a big net across the Severn, and catch the lot,” says Andrew. “So nets are one of the things we regulate. Everyone has to use a hand-held net, to stop people from trawling.”
Indeed, elvers are good business: the fishermen aren’t just there for fun. Most have day jobs, and see elver fishing as seasonal shift work to supplement their income. Like most markets, it’s shaped by supply and demand. A few years ago, supply was low and demand was high, so British elvers could fetch £300 per kilo for export to Japan or the Middle East, where they are a prized delicacy. But now the supply of British elvers has increased and new regulations prevent their sale outside the EU, so the price per kilo has dropped down to £40 or £50.
“The market is strongly controlled,” says Dave, who patrols the river banks with his colleagues equipped with night-vision cameras. Every elver caught must be sold to a regulated “collecting station” which has a fixed quota: when that has been met, it cannot buy any more. Around 75% of these elvers are then distributed across the UK and Europe to restock rivers and wetlands, while the remainder is sold on to aquaculture farms.
The Severn & Wye Smokery only deals with farmed eels. “I think that there should be no market for wild eel at all,” says company ambassador Dai Francis. Not only is farmed eel sustainable, but it also produces a more consistent end-product, he explains. “When you buy wild eels, they’re all different sizes, with different fat content. A farmed eel is a consistent size, with a consistent fat content. That’s important because the oak-flavoured smoke impregnates the fish through the fat, which softens as it’s cooked.”
But not all smokeries share Severn & Wye’s “farmed-only” stance. “Lots of companies buy cheap wild eel from people who are dredging quarries, or from farmers draining their ditches,” says Francis. Wild eel cost 10%-15% less than farmed eel, which has cost Severn & Wye a lot of business. “We’ve stuck to our guns and will only use sustainable farmed eel, even though it means that we can’t be price competitive,” he says.
Andrew agrees that the wild variety is the unregulated Wild West of eel fishing. “So far there is only one wild eel fisherman operating through the SEG’s sustainable system,” he says, referring to a single man operating from the Isle of Ely. “It’s not that we’re against fishing wild eels. It’s just that we’ve struggled to come across wild eel fishermen who are willing to subject themselves to our standards.”
“Three to four years ago, when things were looking gloomy I would have been less sympathetic toward the wild eel fishermen,” says Andrew, adding that he is keen to work together to find a solution that satisfies both them and the SEG. Just because eel stock levels are healthy now doesn’t guarantee that the trend will continue – and plucking wild eels out of rivers and canals prevents them from returning to The Sargasso Sea to continue the 20-year life cycle.
So for the meantime, Andrew concludes that “the sustainable solution is the only solution” to ensure that the Britain’s eel population survives for future generations. This week, conservationists were out along the banks of the Parrett, and managed to net 1.2 million eels in a single night at the height of the spring tide, only to release them further upstream, past the river’s barriers, a few hours later.
A similar operation will take place on the River Severn later this month. Later in the year the SEG plans to re-stock wetland habitats across England and Wales, particularly East Anglia.
“More than a million fish in one night on the Parrett is a phenomenal number,” says Andrew. “Last year we managed it but it took us the whole season. This year there are so many we matched it in one night. It would be madness to leave them on the wrong side of barriers where they’ll die.”
And even with these extraordinary numbers, regulation remains vital, says Throup. “I’ve heard people say that it’s to restrict our eel fishermen when eel stocks are the strongest they’ve been in decades,” “But the reality is that the eel is a mysterious creature, with a complicated life cycle. There’s no guarantee that the millions of glass eels we’re seeing arrive in Britain will return to Sargasso in 10 years and produce the next generation. And then we’re back to square one.”