Bypasses seal deal for eels to return to Britain

A A A

They are as fragile as their name suggests, yet glass eels survive being hurled about by terrifying storms as they evade sharp-toothed predators on a 4,000-mile, three-year odyssey from the North Atlantic. Then they arrive in Britain only to find that the barricades are up.

Concrete walls, tidal flaps, sluice gates and weirs are just some of the many obstacles these tiny creatures come up against as they try to swim up rivers to reach the inland waterways where they can grow to adulthood. Consequently, the number of eels in Britain's waterways has slumped.

Now a review of British rivers will identify structures that can be pulled down, or sites that are suitable for eel-friendly bypasses. In some cases, a pipe lined with grippy mesh is all that is needed for the eels to get past a man-made obstacle.

The worst-affected areas include historic eel habitats high up river systems such as Lake Ullswater, and new wetlands such as the Potteric Carr Nature Reserve in Yorkshire.

The problem is so acute that the River Severn, once regarded by wildlife experts as an eel motorway, is now a death trap. In July, conservationists watched with amazement and dismay as thousands of elvers (young eels) tried – but failed – to cross a flood defence at Tewkesbury by forming a living chain along its concrete sides.

Across Europe, eel populations have crashed by 95 per cent in the last 25 years. They begin their journey as centimetre-long newborns in the Sargasso Sea. After the gruelling journey to Britain, they have evolved to swim up rivers and streams to mature in fresh water before, sometimes decades later, returning to the sea to breed.

The modern use of concrete has been identified as one of the prime problems in the eels' decline, because they can neither climb nor wriggle their way past them. By contrast, old wooden and stone structures usually offered a few holes the tenacious creatures could push their way through.

Alistair Maltby, a fish biologist and director of the Association of River Trusts, is leading the new study for the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), an umbrella group representing conservationists and industry, which is supported by the Environment Agency and the Living North Sea project.

"We may have done more damage to eels over the last 20 years than the historic weirs did since the Industrial Revolution," said Mr Maltby. "At the moment, we have very limited areas in which eels can grow to the size they need to in fresh water in order to return to wherever they breed, but we do have some big wetland nature reserves. If we can get eels into those reserves, we may be able to substantially boost migrating eel numbers."

Andrew Kerr of SEG said the project has potential to offer a "very big contribution" towards bringing about a great improvement in the eel's fortunes. One of the most worrying factors, he said, is that the number of glass eels reaching Britain's shores has slumped to just 5 per cent of the levels 30 years ago which, in the long term, is likely to have serious consequences for the adult eel population.

He said the problem eels face in the shape of flood defences and other structures are "a far bigger contribution to their decline than fishing".

A long, hard journey

* Baby glass eels can take years to swim the 4,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea to Britain, where they become elvers. They then travel up rivers to mature before returning to their breeding grounds.

* Eel populations across Europe have dropped by as much as 95 per cent in the past 25 years.

* The eel's decline started in the 1980s. Other threats to the creatures include fishing.

* Young glass eels and mature specimens are delicacies in some countries.

* Parasites have also been blamed for damaging eel populations.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power