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
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
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

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits