Angling: Down at eel dealing with slippery customers

Fishing Lines
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The Independent Online
READERS WITH holiday homes in exotic locations such as the Bahamas, Neckar or Hawaii can do me a favour. If one of your neighbours turns out to be George, a former fishmonger from Slough, let me know at once. The bounder's been living high on the hog thanks to my mother's washing machine, months of night work on my part - and bucketloads of eels.

Without the European Eel Fisheries Conservation Group, I wouldn't even have known. Eel stocks are in a parlous state, the group revealed this week. It's those slippery Chinese, who have been plundering our stocks now that they've used up their own. The eel-huggers' findings were supported by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which told the European Union that adult spawning stocks were now outside safe biological limits.

Such things are not easy to calculate. Eels are the Howard Hughes of the fish world, their movements largely a mystery. They breed in the Sargasso Sea, north-east of the Caribbean. Nobody has succeeded at breeding them in captivity. Baby eels, called glass eels or elvers, hop aboard the Gulf Stream and float along until it stops at the UK. Then they ascend rivers (the Severn is a particular favourite), find a spot they like and settle down.

In fish terms, it seems an idyllic existence: get to know the neighbours, grow fat and comfortable. Then suddenly one autumn, eels get the urge for a Sargasso family reunion. There's no stopping them. Eels will even travel for hundreds of yards across dry land, once that invitation has filtered through the ether. Not everybody goes to the party. Some eels stay in a pond, lake or river all their lives, growing old (they could be more than 70) and weighing as much as 12lb.

The trouble is, eels taste good. On rivers such as the Severn and Wye, netting elvers is big business. Gangs descend and stake out their turf. Fisticuffs are commonplace in prime sites; even guns are seen. Stocks are plundered, because eels are not subject to quotas like other species of fish. Countries like Denmark (where they actually stock rivers with eels) have introduced quotas to protect stocks. Britain has not.

Demand for elvers has soared, especially from China. Eel stocks in Asian waters have been stripped so the Chinese have been buying from Europe. Up to 75 per cent of the European catch heads to the Far East, where fish farms feed them to eatable size. With prices of more than $320 a kilo (about 3,000 elvers) it's a lucrative trade - but a wasteful one. An estimated 45 per cent die in transit.

This infanticide is starting to tell. UK elver catches were 60 per cent lower last year. Fewer elvers mean fewer proper eels, though the problem won't become apparent for a few years because eels are so slow-growing. (A 2lb eel could be at least 20 years old.) The Danish bioscientist Christian Graver, in an interview with Fish Farming International, says: "There will be a disaster which many have seen coming." For true Cockneys, reliant upon jellied eels as part of their calorie- controlled diets, the situation could be even more serious.

Still if you think elver prices are high, look what they are worth when they grow to the market size of 250 grammes. Japan eats more than 50,000 tonnes of kabayaki (barbecued eel) annually - paying up to pounds 240 a kilo.

Now I can understand when our local fishmonger made a cup of tea each time he saw me staggering in with my bucket of eels. "I've got a customer in Japan who likes them," he told me. He didn't tell me the customer was Tokyo. They had to be alive (hence the washing machine on the very lowest setting) until I could transport them to market. I won't tell you what I got paid. Suffice to say it was less than one-100th of today's going rate. Even allowing for inflation, I reckon I'm due the equivalent of five correct numbers on the Lottery - especially when you consider that in one lucrative week I lugged in more than 300lb of Thames estuary eels.

Funnily enough, I never ate a single eel I caught, though they are the most nutritious of all fish. Old George certainly got well on them.