European eel on the agenda of the CITES CoP 14

Nimfea Association – as a member organization of the CEEWEB CITES Working Group - developed a short position paper in support of the proposal of the European Community to include the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) in Annex II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Please read the main conclusions.

   The European eel {Anguilla anguilla (LINNAEUS, 1758)} – the only representative of the family Anguillidae living in Europe – has faced serious difficulties in the recent decades. Threatening factors include changes in ocean currents affecting migration, habitat loss, pollution, the impact of invasive species and local fishing, and also international trade, as the European eel plays is commercially important as food. Therefore it is strongly recommended to introduce more rigorous regulation in order to improve its ecological conditions.
    In 1980, the European Committee for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources of the Council of Europe classified the eel as “vulnerable”. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) considers the European Eel "outside safe biological limits" in the context of the Agreement for the implementation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks.
    The life cycle and migration routes of European eels are not exactly known. They spawn in the Western part of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Sargasso Sea, in a depth of about 100-200 meters. The hatching larvae (leptocephalus larvae) are 5 mm long, shaped like a willow-leaf. They arrive to the European shores in about two years drifting with the ocean streams. In the meanwhile they change to the so-called ‘glass eel’ state, with a transparent, cylindrical body. Their pigmentation develops gradually: it takes another year to turn into ‘bronze/yellow eels’, while traveling upstream on the rivers. Their inland water life phase begins. This state lasts for 1-2 decades, until becoming sexually mature (the ‘silver ell’ state), when their seaward migration starts. Thanks to their good adaptability and strong migration aptitude, European eels could be found in larger and smaller rivers as well, and also in various lakes, river arms and larger channels – eels were common in all kinds of inland waters.
     Originally this species is common in the European shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea; it is rare in the Black Sea and its rivers, but it is definitely autochthonous.
The regional eel population has come close to becoming extinct as a result of the regulation of rivers, the Iron Gate on the Danube and massive dying of the last decade. Due to the specific development cycle of the eel (catadromous species), it has become more and more difficult for the progeniture to return to its natural habitats, partly because of the regulation, dams and other interventions in the catchment area, and partly because of the higher pollution levels. Similar to sturgeons (Acipenseridae), the self-sustaining populations of eels are victims of river management practices.
On the Western European market there is a significant demand for eels (glass, yellow and silver eels are favoured in different regions). Eel fishing provides a crucial income for over 25,000 fishermen.
European eel populations are also used as the basis for Asian eel aquaculture. Most of the captive bred eel production is based on catching and rearing wild-caught juvenile “glass eels”. More than 90% of the world production of eels is cultured in Asia. Especially Chinese eel farms use European glass eels for breeding. Beside exports, eel poaching also exists, particularly in southern Europe.
    Considering its economic profitability, commercial and recreational fisheries tried to counteract this tendency with artificial populations. As a result, eels were caught by anglers in a higher proportion for a short period. Nevertheless, currently natural populations are in decline, as over-fishing is also posing a threat to eel populations, beside the changes in the integrity of river systems. As a result of these complex factors, the species became endangered.
For the preservation of the species, the introduction of effective restrictive, control and conservation measures are recommended. In the long term the only solution is the restoration of rivers acting as an ecological corridor, in accordance with the approach of the Water Framework Directive of the European Union.

Further reading:

CEEWEB CITES Working Group

Webpage of CITES:

Eel stocks dangerously close to collapse

Eels: their harvest and trade in Europe and Asia


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