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Eels are fascinating – and we need to stop eating them


Few animals have aroused the curiosity of humanity as much as the eel (Anguilla anguilla). Not so long ago, these slimy, slippery, incredibly agile, snake-like fish inhabited nearly every body of water in Europe and North Africa, often in extraordinary numbers. And no one knew where they came from.

From Aristotle to Linnaeusphilosophers and naturalists have been fascinated by the eel’s apparent lack of reproduction. Since no one had been able to observe sexual organs or eggs, scientists have provided various and inventive explanations about the origin of this animal.

It was only at the end of the 19the century that the marine origin of the eel was discovered. Italian zoologist John Grassi found that a leaf-shaped marine fish, called Leptocephalus brevirostriswas actually a European eel at a juvenile stage. Grassi observed that these larvae metamorphosed into glass eels (eel fry) when they arrived near the coast, then into yellow eels. Eels therefore come from the sea. But the sea is very vast.

Johannes Schmidta Danish biologist, wanted to find the breeding grounds of the eel. He had found that leptocephalus larvae varied in size and had deduced that the smaller they were, the closer they were to spawning grounds. Schmidt undertook the Herculean task of catching and measuring juvenile eels throughout the North Atlantic and published its results one century ago. Since this flagship publication, it is assumed that the European eel spawns in the Sargasso Sea.

Surprisingly, we have learned almost nothing about eel reproduction for 100 years. A recent report on their breeding migration was noted for providing the first direct observation of eels migrating to the Sargasso Sea to mate. These results confirmed Schmidt’s view.

European needle.
(Luis Zamora), Author provided

These eels that we savor

Whether or not they know about the mysterious life cycle of the eel, humans have always eaten it. Eel remains are regularly found in the archaeological sites from all over Europe. They were appreciated by ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations.

In medieval England, some taxes were paid in eelswhich required the delivery of millions of beasts. Of the historical documents of the XVIe and XIXe centuries report eels measuring 80 cm and weighing 11 kg caught in central Spain. The eel has been the subject of large-scale fishing in several European countries, such as in the Po delta, in Italy, where eel catch data since 1780.

Smoked eels
Eel tuxedo. Exhibition 2007 (Fishermen’s Days – Fishing Days).
Labberte KJ/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Many cultural traditions have developed around the eel. In the entire Europe, we eat it fried, grilled, dried, salted, smoked, boiled and simmered in various ways. There are parties and eel-tasting festivals in various places, such as the Eel Festivalin Comacchio, Italy, or theAlagillein Sweden.

The inhabitants of the coastal areas of the Bay of Biscay, and in particular the Basque regions, have developed a taste for the elver (or elver) which has only recently spread to other places as a gastronomic delicacy. The elver is also the subject of gastronomic festivals, such as the one celebrated at the beginning of March in the Asturiasin Spain.

We have taken a liking to eating eels, but all this must stop.

The Eel Collapse

The European eel has started a sudden decline towards the end of the 1970s. All the data consistently show that the current eel population is only a shadow of what it was a few decades ago.

Today less than five glass eels arrive on European coasts per cent that arrived there in the period from 1960 to 1979. The decline in stocks reflects the loss of range. In the Iberian Peninsulamore than 85% of glass eel habitat is now inaccessible to it due to the construction of dams.

The conservation status of the European eel is so poor that it is now considered an endangered species. critically endangered. it’s about the extreme categorythe last stage before extinction. All the other species that are emblematic of conservation on the planet (panda, koala, polar bear) are in better shape than the eel. Other critically endangered species found in Europe include the european mink and the balearic shearwater. These two species are strictly protected, and significant conservation efforts are in place to preserve them.

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European eel in the river Ter.
(Luis Zamora), Author provided

You don’t find European mink or Balearic shearwaters on restaurant menus, nor are they served in large quantities at food festivals. But this is the case with the eel. We are devouring the European eel to extinction.

Stop eating eels

The culinary and social traditions associated with the consumption of eel emerged at a time when one could satisfy one’s appetite thanks to its abundant population. That hasn’t been the case for decades. But habits are maintained and even intensified as if nothing had changed.

Eel fishing has not ended despite its increasing scarcity. It has become a unique food and excessively expensiveincreasingly sought after due to our taste for rare products. THE vicious circle that makes exploited and declining species have an increased economic value only leads to an intensification of their exploitation and accelerates their decline. We know that this can lead to the extinction of certain species. The eel seems to be one of them.

In the actual context, sustainable eel exploitation is no longer possible. Although it is debatable whether overfishing has played the main role in the decline of the species, its consumption is undoubtedly one of the biggest obstacles to its recovery. We need to stop fishing and eating eels, both to prevent their extinction and to allow future exploitation of a healthy eel population.

Recommendations from specialists aimed at stop all fishing should ideally be implemented throughout the range of the species and for a long period (at least a decade).

However, European Union politicians at all levels lack vision in this area and have decided not to ban fishing. National and regional administrations are trying to circumvent the timid and clearly insufficient restrictions imposed by the EU and protect the eel fishery.

In the absence of a ban decreed by the authorities, consumers and the gastronomic community should play an important role in abandoning the exploitation of eels. Eel recipes are still widely publicized in the media and served in fancy restaurants. I want to believe that chefs and food journalists are unaware of the critical status of eel and would support a moratorium if they did. There are cases where eel has been given up as a cooking ingredient, such as for the TV show master chef UK.

It’s time for everyone to refrain from eating, serving or recommending eel.

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