Let's get real about eel: The slippery fish will soon be coming back on to the menu

Once a working-class staple, eels are now considered an endangered species. But efforts to boost their stocks could change all of that.

Eels and Easter arrive together. The eels are needle-sized babies, called elvers or glass eels because they're totally transparent, reaching British shores at the end of an exhausting 4,000-mile mara- thon swim from the Sargasso Sea where they spawn.

For generations, the arrival of migratory so-called European eels used to be anxiously awaited at this time of year by fishermen on the Severn and Wye tidal rivers. They collected them in nets at night then fried them up with bacon and scrambled eggs to make a delicious dish looking like a plate of marine spaghetti. The tiny glass eels gave it a delicate crunch. Sometimes they were even mixed with herbs and transformed into a "cake".

Those fishy feasts, though, are largely a thing of the past. The eel is in trouble. The Marine Conservation Society places eel on its Red List of Fish to Avoid, classing it as critically endangered. Conservation groups want a total ban on eel's exploitation until stocks recover and have successfully persuaded chefs from Gordon Ramsay to Jamie Oliver to drop adult eel from their menus.

Even London's Japanese restaurants, for whom oil-rich meaty eel is one of the most prized ingredients, are shunning it. Silla Bjerrum, who runs eight restaurants in the Feng Sushi chain, hasn't served eel for 18 months.

Thanks to its unique life cycle, however, the eel's predicament is different from other fish. Its collapse is not just the result of overfishing but also of mismanagement of the tidal rivers, according to Richard Cook, who has lived and fished on the Severn all his life and runs a smokery. "Although the number of elvers is down, there are still millions during the season. We're not talking pandas, where just a few remain. The elvers' biggest problem is that they can't get out of the tidal rivers into the freshwater streams and rivers where they feed and grow into adults," he says.

Richard takes me to a spot on the Severn near his family home. "Places like Walmore Common, on the river's flood plain, used to be under water most of the year. It was the ideal nursery for glass eels, which hid in wet ditches as they slowly migrated upriver. Now it's been drained for farming."

He shows me a sluice gate. "These are the other problem – the tidal rivers are now sealed, so the eels can't get out. Pumps and hydro systems are disasters as the eels get caught up in them and mashed."

Richard is part of a Europe-wide coalition of conservationists, scientists, Environment Agency officers, National Rivers Trust members and industry leaders called The Sustainable Eel Group. The group is devising a recovery plan that includes finding ways to unblock the eel's migratory routes.

Doing that will take years. In the meantime, the Group has another solution: to pay licensed fishermen to catch elvers from tidal rivers so they can be moved to waters where they can flourish. Some 40 per cent are returned to inland rivers to boost stocks, 60 per cent go to fish farms in Europe.

"Doing nothing isn't an option," says Richard. "It's not like cod, where the best solution is to leave them alone. If we leave eels to fend for themselves in the big tidal rivers, 99 per cent of them will die."

Richard is even enlisting local schools and chefs in the recovery effort. Over the next few weeks he will take tanks of glass eels into 50 primary schools whose pupils will feed them for around 10 weeks until the fish have doubled in size. The children will then release them into local inland rivers – while sampling Richard's smoked eel. Some tanks in the Eels in Schools scheme are sponsored by chefs including Martin Wishart, Mitch Tonks and Brian Turner.

Some conservationists complain there's little evidence that such measures are helping to boost stocks so still advise consumers to shun all eel, farmed or wild. But Richard believes the measures are the best way to ensure the eel's future. "In the wild, two kilos of elvers will grow to nine kilos in adult weight. In a farm, they'll become 1,000 kilos," he says. "Farming eel is a no-brainer." The Sustainable Eel Group is now labelling eel that it deems sustainably farmed with a logo that will appear on fish sold in shops and on restaurant menus.

The first packs of "sustainable" eel went on sale this week in Richard's smokery. The fish was also served as a starter, with beetroot and horseradish, at an Action against Hunger charity dinner cooked by some of Britain's food critics, including The Independent's Tracey MacLeod.

"Our message is that chefs and consumers should never buy wild adult eel," says Richard. "But if they buy eel carrying the Sustainable Eel logo they can serve and eat it with a clear conscience. If there's no demand, people will stop worrying about the eel's future."

As night falls, we join rows of fishermen on the Severn, each on their particular "tump" (fishing spot), often passed down from father to son. Their headtorches make them look like nocturnal Ninja turtles, and they hold large hand nets in the fast-moving waters.

There's a full moon, mists rise off the river like clouds, and the only sounds puncturing the silence are mobile phone conversations checking tides and comparing hauls. From time to time they brush a clutch of wriggling elvers into plastic buckets.

At 2am we leave them to it and head for the weighing-in station inside a Gloucester warehouse where a handful of fishermen place trays of their precious catch on the scales and exchange them for wads of £20 notes.

It's an insight into a hidden world that few know exists. But will it save the eel, and will chefs and their customers be convinced? "It's a complex issue," says chef Silla Bjerrum. "If I can be sure my eels have been fished from a restocking programme and farmed sustainably, I'd consider buying it."

Whatever the way ahead, few will disagree that this mysterious fish is too precious – and tasty – to lose.

severnandwye.co.uk

sustainableeelgroup.com

Ways with eel

Jellied eel

Relished by inhabitants of the East End of London since the 18th century and traditionally served with vinegar in Eel Pie & Mash Houses. It's made by simmering eels with chopped onion and bay leaves. As the mixture cool and sets it forms a jelly.

Unagi kabayaki

The Japanese way. Eel (unagi) is dipped in a sweet soy sauce then grilled. Served on top of steamed rice.

Eel pie

Traditionally served with mash and "liquor" in the East End. The TV chef James Martin's version includes leeks, whelks and clams.

Matelote

A delicious French dish in which eel is combined with carp, onion, red wine and herbs and gently stewed.

Aalsoep (Dutch eel soup)

One of Holland's best known national dishes, this simple soup consists of fresh eel, parsley and capers.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair