Baby eels wriggle through tax net: The elver season has begun and so has the battle with the bailiffs, Jason Bennetto reports

THE FIRST thing you see are the paraffin lamps dotted along the banks of the river, illuminating tiny patches of mud and grass. Then there are the dark figures, clutching what look like huge sieves, who lunge at the water.

It is 9.30pm in the wetlands of the Somerset Levels and the tide is starting to turn on the river Parrett - perfect conditions to catch baby eels, known as elvers. Although some of the people fishing are poachers, using illegal nets, most have the necessary pounds 33 licences. But almost all are taking part without the knowledge of the Inland Revenue.

The elver season, which usually lasts until May, has just begun, as has the annual battle with the water bailiffs. This year the National Rivers Authority, Wessex Region, is more determined than ever to stamp out illegal fishing because of growing evidence that eel stocks are diminishing.

The elvers have to travel 3,000 miles from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic west of the Caribbean, before they reach the Bristol Channel, where tidal surges sweep them upriver, mainly into the Parrett and Severn. At this stage the eels are translucent threads, three to four inches long. Left alone they will grow to 30 inches in five years before returning to the sea.

More than 250 men and a few women fish along the 12-mile tidal stretch of the Parrett near Bridgwater. Spurred on by the chance of earning hundreds of pounds in a few hours, they spend their evenings in wet, freezing conditions, trawling the brown water with their 'scoop' nets.

With dealers paying pounds 25 to pounds 50 a kilo, a few fishermen discard the small hand-held nets in favour of illegal 'flow nets' which are submerged in the centre of the river. Others keep the traditional nets, but enlarge the openings beyond the legal limit.

The dealers park their vans in the narrow lanes alongside the river. At the end of the night the fishermen, often with their torches still strapped to their heads, gather round with their catches. The elvers are weighed before being poured into water tanks through which oxygen is pumped. They are usually kept for about three days, then sent by air and road to Europe, in particular Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, where they are used to re-stock rivers or are fattened-up and eaten.

Michael Brown, an eel dealer, said: 'There's been a general decline in the stocks. You used to be able to catch them by the bucketful. I think there is an element of overfishing world-wide, but pollution must also be important.'

Recently, water bailiffs from the rivers authority's Somerset region were on patrol near Burrow Bridge. Some fishermen had been on the river bank all afternoon to reserve the best spots; others left marker posts with their nets attached; a few had camped out. Competition is fierce and some disputes have ended with rivals being thrown into the river. Most of the fishing is done at night because the elvers sink to the bottom of the river in the daytime.

The first person the bailiffs questioned had an illegal-sized net which was seized. Five more were confiscated that evening.

The bailiffs have stepped up security measures since last year after a gang of poachers kept watch on their headquarters; several officers were followed and one of their cars had its windscreen smashed. Robert Jones, assistant fisheries officer, said: 'They use look-outs, radio scanners and CB radios to keep in touch and warn each other about our movements. You're only talking about a small number of people, but they are very well organised.'

Mark and Keith, both 22, had camped by the river for the past eight days. Mark had taken holiday leave from his job in a garage to catch elvers. He said: 'I'm doing it to pay for my wedding. There's no fun in it: it's pretty hard work and can be boring. It kills your back - I scooped up a dead calf from the river the other day and it took me ages to empty the net.' He added that he had seen poachers with two flow nets in the past few weeks.

Robert, 25, who has fished for elvers for 10 years, said: 'There's a gang of people willing to break the law for the chance of earning pounds 1,000 in a day. I'm happy if I earn pounds 30 in a night, but it's knowing you could make pounds 500 that keeps me coming back.'

None of the fishermen would give his full name or be photographed for fear of being recognised by social security or tax inspectors. Most payments for elvers are in cash or untraceable cheques. But not everyone goes elver-fishing for money. The father of one family said: 'We just want enough for breakfast - we'll either have them as a fry-up or with some scrambled egg. They taste lovely.'

(Photographs omitted)