Fishing: Finding the eel good factor

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The Independent Online
Old angling books tell you that tench, a muddy-brown freshwater fish, are the GPs of the fish world. This story came about because tench are exceptionally slimy and their slime was supposed to have medicinal benefits. According to legend, a fish with finrot, piles or PMT would pop along to the tench, have a quick rub-up and swim off feeling better.

Mind you, it sounds like tench surgery is having the same problems as its terrestrial counterpart. You can't get an appointment for weeks, because waiting-rooms are packed with eels waiting for their Prozac prescriptions. I'm not joking. The problem of depressed eels has got so serious that two Birmingham scientists have been allocated a pounds 48,000 grant to study the fish's behavioural stress. It has been prompted by the fish farming industry, for whom eels are very big business.

Eels are the most nutritious of all fish, and can command prices up to six times those of salmon. In some places such as Denmark, they actually stock rivers with small eels but farming is far more profitable. These farms breed eels in huge vats, but the circulation system which is vital to water purity has become a problem. Dr Stewart Owen says: "Carbon dioxide produced by growing fish dissolves and increases the water's acidity, causing respiratory problems and behavioural stress. The eels simply use up all their energy and sink to the bottom of the tank." It's a challenge cheering up a gloomy eel. How do you do it? Funny pictures round the tank? Video films of Jaws, Free Willy and A Fish Called Wanda?

Not a lot of people know this, but my first job was actually as an eel catcher. Determined to become a journalist but not sure how to go about it, every night I fished for eels, which I sold to a Slough fish shop.

It was a tricky operation, because the fish had to be kept alive. I solved this by carrying them in a bucket back from the river, and keeping them in my mother's washing machine, set to a very low spin, to keep them active. It was quite profitable during the summer, when I would average four a night. But as it turned colder, they became harder to catch. I knew it was time to look for a new career when a sudden halt sent my bucket over on the top deck of a 22 bus, and I had to crawl under the seats for my precious eels. It's amazing how quickly people can move when an eel crawls under their feet.

Still, being out of water is not a great problem for eels. On wet nights, they can travel quite considerable distances across land. It's how they end up in ponds and lakes miles from any river. They have an extraordinary sense of water. If you catch one and drop it on the bank it will instinctively squirm its way back towards the lake or pond. They are not easy to handle, and catching four eels leaves your clothes looking as if you've been trampolining inside a giant runny nose.

However, there's an old Irish trick which keeps eels absolutely still. Cut a shallow trench and manoeuvre the eel into it, with the fish upside down. That's the hard bit. Once you have the eel in, it will stay still. In fact, if you leave one like that it would die, though that is horribly cruel. The Irish used to cut their trench in the shape of a crucifix, claiming eels were the devil's work and the cross held the devil still. Not a lot of help to the Birmingham researchers, that, but interesting nevertheless.

Still, don't feel too sorry for them. Rather than grovelling around in the mud of the Soho Loop Canal, Birmingham, they will spend the year-long project in Milan, which is, of course, the first place that comes to mind when you think of eels.