On June 2021, the Fisheries Secretariat (FishSec) – a non-profit organisation advocating for sustainable fisheries in Europe – published a new report called “Annual three-month eel fishing closures: do they protect migrating eels in the EU?” It paints a bleak picture of the current status of protection of European eels and concludes that “many Member States are more likely to protect their fishing sector than the eels”.
For many decades now, the eels have been declining throughout Europe. Despite being officially listed on IUCN Red list
as Critically Endangered species, the eels still remain subject to both commercial and recreational fishing across the European Union. Additional man-made actions such as hydropower plants implementation, pollution as well as illegal catch and trade of eels, render the protection of this sensitive marine species particularly difficult. What is more, this alarming situation is compounded by the fact that the European eels’ migration patterns are complex: all of them spawn in the Sargasso Sea, “at least 5 000 km from the western margin of their continental habitat in Europe” (FishSec report, 2021). In that context, according to estimations, the recruitment of this species (the larvae) has fallen by over 90%, and the stock of adult eels by ca. 50% since the 1980’s.
Following scientific advice, the European Commission proposed in 2017 to prohibit fishing eels longer than 12 cm for all Union waters. This proposal
was deemed necessary to improve the stock status and “to cease fisheries that target spawners”. Nevertheless, the latter was rejected by EU Member States. Instead, EU capitals agreed on a watered-down political compromise – the Joint Declaration for eel recovery
– that opted for a solution of “three-month closures of eel fisheries during the fishing season”.
However, according to the conclusions of the FishSec report, this option fails to protect large-scale migration of eels. In spite of the fact that “the majority of the coastal EU Member States are in compliance with the legal requirements of closing their eel fisheries for three consecutive months, only a few countries fulfil the intent to protect the mature silver eels that are on their way to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce”. This can be explained by a two-folded reason. On the one hand, in many countries, there is “little or quasi-inexistent overlap with the migration period”, hampering the protection of eels during “their most vulnerable life stages”. On the other hand, FishSec has found out that several countries like Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands, “allow landings and/or sales to take place during the closed period”, making “control and enforcement of the ban an even greater challenge” (FishSec report, 2021).
The European Anglers Alliance (EAA), in line with its 2018 position on the rebuilding of the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) stock
, calls for the EU Commission and the EU Member States to stop all targeted fishing for eels, commercial as well as recreational, at all its life stages,*. As it was scientifically proved, the three-month ban introduction has failed to deliver on the original intention. Now is the time to take bold actions to protect European eels.
* Minority statement by the Deutscher Angelfischerverband (DAFV) in the context of the 2018 EAA position paper on rebuilding of the European Eel stock:
"The DAFV finds that a total fishing ban is a counter-productive way to protect and rebuild eel stocks. It would lead to a withdrawal of organized anglers from restocking and monitoring worth millions of euros. In Germany this could lead to the extinction of the eel. The path taken to rebuild stocks based on regional eel management plans, that do not explicitly exclude fishing for eel, should therefore be continued."