Saving European Eel AND small scale fishermen

How to save the European Eel AND the small scale fishermen of the Baltic

Warsaw, 14 September 2017

Marcin Ruciński

The management of the European Eel, a fascinating, elusive fish with a very complex and not completely understood life cycle has long posed a difficult challenge for all involved. Labelled a critically endangered species by the IUCN, listed in Appendix II of the CITES Convention, and subject to an EU-wide recovery plan since 2007 both in sea and inland waters, it  is nevertheless a severely troubled stock.

In its October 2016 advice, ICES advised that all anthropogenic impact on eels – including recreational and commercial fishing at all stages, hydropower, pumping stations, and pollution should be kept as close to zero as possible. At the end of August of this year, LIFE Members from the Baltic Sea area, along with many other fishers, have seen and considered the annual European Commission proposals for 2018 Baltic Sea Fishing Opportunities, which includes a total ban on any eel fisheries in the maritime waters of the Region .

The Commission’s zeal to protect European Eel is understandable. However, one cannot forget an important number of small-scale fishers, that fish for eels in the waters of the Baltic Sea. For some of them, eel is an important source of income. Many contribute to financing of restocking activities and have embarked on the elaboration and implementation of national Eel Management Plans. Their catch reports provide an important basis for scientific assessment of the stock status, which has suffered from data deficiencies for years.

Is it really necessary and indispensable to impose a total ban on them? Do we have to sacrifice them? And most importantly: will it help European Eel?

At LIFE, we think there are better ways to protect this stock than simply instituting a total ban on exclusively small-scale marine fishing in just one EU region, which also happens to be particularly productive for silver eel, while leaving things as they are in other EU regions, some of which matter much more to the European eel’s future, such as glass eel-producing ones. Given the level of management complexity and time constraints, we focus on highlighting specific issues that should, in our opinion, be urgently addressed by fisheries managers and other stakeholders at European, regional and national levels, if the stock situation is to improve.

  1. Introduce an all-encompassing Catch Documentation Scheme for European eel – for all stages of its life cycle

Data deficiency has been plaguing scientific assessments of European eel for long enough. Even if the data from national level are available, they come in sets and formats making it impossible to form a meaningful overall picture. The latest ICES advice is yet another example of this unfortunate phenomenon. Furthermore, despite some real efforts, illegal fishing remains a big issue for the European eel – one that will not be solved by simplistically banning the legal fisheries in the Baltic. We therefore propose that those responsible for European eel management and control are tasked– as a matter of urgency – with elaborating a single document and system to record all eel catches in a uniform way across Europe, in marine and inland waters alike, for all eel life stages. This will achieve two important aims: it will give scientists a solid basis to determine real stock status and trends, and at the same time equip the control authorities with an important instrument to combat illegal fishing. There are of course serious challenges along the way, legal ones and others, such as the very extent of the Common Fisheries Policy for example. But at LIFE, we believe in the good will of European Institutions, including their Legal Services, to help solve the problem.


  1. Do more to weed out illegal eel fishing – at European level

With the pan-European span of fisheries and trade, combating illegal fishing and marketing of eel must be intensified and coordinated at European level. The existing knowledge, experience and national-level achievements in combating eel-related IUU should be presented and analyzed to identify and then implement best practices. We are lucky to have the European Fisheries Control Agency at our disposal, and an existing multiannual plan to implement. A coordinated approach, supported by a genuine and proactive approach from individual member states has the capacity to make a significant contribution to the protection and survival of the European eel and those that rely upon it for a living.


  1. Facilitate downstream eel migration

It is high time for a serious effort by all stakeholders – including those outside the fisheries sector – to help in downstream river migration of the silver eel. It is particularly important to make the key migration routes accessible and safe to silver eel during the migration period. This could, for example take the form of coordinating the timing of hydropower dams’ maintenance works (so that they remain idle, not lethal to silver eels) with the migration period. The small-scale, low impact fishers should, of course, play their part as well, by restricting fishing effort during silver eel migration time, in order to “close the cycle”.


  1. Reserve the glass eel fishery for restocking only

A properly conducted restocking with glass eels can bring about positive effects to the stock. It is particularly true for glass eels entering uninhabitable inland waters. Effects of certain national Eel Management Plans from the Baltic Sea region, as illustrated by the latest ICES advice, are a good example of this. The more glass eels we can reserve for restocking, the more silver eels will migrate back to the Sargasso Sea.

It is clearly in the interests of Baltic small-scale, low impact fishers to contribute to improving the European Eel stock situation. We will spare no effort to do so, including support for further fishing restrictions where justified. But this cannot be yet another nail in the coffin of our already threatened profession. The Commission proposal forces us all to commit to serious measures to protect the stock for the longer term. Let us not squander this chance.

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