Unless action is taken urgently, the eel will be extinct, say environmentalists. Catches of juvenile ones, known as glass eels, are said to have been 60 per cent lower last year than in 1997, and there are demands for a review of what is called a wasteful and short-sighted industry.
The huge demand for eels in China caused overfishing in Asian waters, stripping their stocks to near-extinction. Even if they stopped fishing, the stock would take 30 years to recover. Now North America has banned the export of glass eels, forcing China to seek supplies from Europe. Conservationists say the situation is worsened by inefficient freighting. The eels are packed in ice and flown from Europe to Hong Kong, but more than 60 per cent - said to be a total of 550 million - die between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Ed Burrows, of the European Eel Fisheries Conservation Group, which represents eel fishermen, farmers and traders, said: "The jellied eel will simply go by the by unless this is sorted out."
The group has called on the European Commission to regulate the export of glass eels to countries outside Europe. The eel is not subject to the quotas which apply to other species of fish, such as haddock and plaice. "Unregulated fishing is a problem," said Mr Burrows. "Some small countries such as Denmark have introduced quotas unilaterally but Britain, France and Spain need to do the same."
A great deal of money is involved. Smoked eel commands a higher price than premium grade smoked wild salmon, fetching up to pounds 240 a kilogram. Japan is the largest single market, consuming more than 50,000 tonnes of kabayaki (barbecued eel) per year.
Commercial fishing for European glass eel is concentrated off the coasts of the UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. In Britain, more than 30 tonnes of eels are exported from the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary to the Far East. Only 25 per cent of eels caught in European waters are consumed within Europe. A further 45 per cent die in transit to China.
"This staggering mortality rate is not sustainable," said Mr Burrows. "The Chinese are taking a vast number more than they would need if they had efficient transport."
The trouble does not end there. European eels, which are strong and aggressive feeders, escape from Chinese river pens during flooding and are believed to be devouring the more docile local eels.
European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic north- east of the Caribbean. The larvae are carried here by the Gulf Stream, and they spend up to 14 years in rivers, lakes and creeks, growing to up half a metre in length. All attempts to breed the eel in captivity have failed.Reuse content