Our eels are sliding away from us

Outdoor Living

ONCE ABUNDANT Just a decade ago it was possible to stand on the Mall in Westport and watch the downstream migration of thousands of adult eels each autumn. Pic: W Carter/CC0 1.0

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the greatest age attained by a fish in captivity is 88 years. Putte, a European eel (Anguilla anguilla), died in her aquarium home at the lsingborg Museum in Sweden in 1948.
At that time there were certainly more eels on the planet than people, a situation that has dramatically reversed. Even a decade ago it was possible to stand on the Mall in Westport and watch the downstream migration of thousands of adult eels each autumn, a much-anticipated event that would provide a bonanza for those who knew how to catch them, or who were allowed to.
As late as 1999 Ireland’s Marine Institute produced a paper recommending the promotion of the commercial eel fishery throughout the country. Northern Ireland’s Lough Neagh was identified as one of Europe’s leading eel-producing lakes, with a sustainable annual harvest of 20kg per hectare. At the time, eel was making in the region of £5 a kilo, which gave a return for the lake equal to that of good agricultural land.
As Christopher Moriarty, the author of that paper, noted, other waters throughout the island of Ireland had the potential to match the rich yield of Lough Neagh. Plans were afoot to develop a luxury food industry.
Yet when I was young we caught eels out of necessity. We speared them horribly with forks and threw them writhing on the bank. We caught them on baited hooks and even wrestled with them on wet nights, on the rare occasion we found one making an overland journey. We caught every one we could.
And we ate them. Eel was no delicacy. It was food for us, though a rich living for others.
It is a sad fact that eels in the Carrowbeg River have become few. When I last looked I found none. Nor is it Westport alone that has experienced this loss. The European eel is now critically endangered and at risk of extinction.
Extinction. The eel will be no more, but will have its name added to the lengthening list of creatures and curiosities that have been lost. I want to see my grandchildren guddling in the same streams that kept me entertained as a lad. And they would, were there anything worth guddling for, or indeed if the stream was even alive at all. With the water table lowered by aggressive drainage schemes it dries through the summer. It has become nothing more than a deeply hollow sough.
But the eel! Let’s get to know him a little.
We should start in the Sargasso, the only sea completely surrounded by water. Situated in the North Atlantic, this area of calm water is filled with luxuriant growth of Sargassum seaweed and is home to the infamous North Atlantic Garbage Patch, where thousands of square miles of waste plastic have accumulated.
It is here that adult eels spawn. Nobody knows what becomes of them afterwards; we assume that they die. Newly hatched eels are leaf-shaped creatures called leptocephali. These drift helplessly on ocean currents while feeding on minute organisms until they reach our continental shelf, at which they change their appearance and become eel-like. These ‘glass eels’ are initially transparent, but as they continue their migration they gradually become pigmented. On reaching coastal waters they are silver-grey elvers.
The number of elvers that once flooded into every river and stream had to be seen to be believed. They were there by the million, and as fast as they could be caught and eaten their numbers would be replenished. Once regarded as free food for those who would even think of eating them, elvers have become one of the world’s most expensive fish dishes.
These tiny three inch fishes disperse upstream and naturally restock virtually every water in the land. There they feed and grow, some for five years, others for ten, more for twenty, until the urge to make the return journey takes them.
They are now fine, fat and oily, and much in demand. Only now we may not fish or hunt them by any means.
So what happened, that we are losing this valuable asset? Changing ocean currents and degradation of habitat haven’t helped. It seems that reproductive success is waning, perhaps due to pollution in the Sargasso. Parasites that affect the swimming ability of immature eels have also impacted the population.
High market value led to overfishing for a while. The eels of Lough Mask had to run a gauntlet of nets, with each of four netting stations permitted to intercept up to 90 percent of seabound adults.
Perhaps the longevity of the eel will yet save her. For now, keep an eye on the river and let us know what you find.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.