Fishing lines: A slippery bunch, these eel gangs

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The Independent Online

Here's a nasty shock for every lover of a great Cockney delicacy. Those gourmet chunks of ruddock adrift in their own slime may seem as English as pie 'n' mash, but 90 per cent of our jellied eels now come from farmed imports.

Here's a nasty shock for every lover of a great Cockney delicacy. Those gourmet chunks of ruddock adrift in their own slime may seem as English as pie 'n' mash, but 90 per cent of our jellied eels now come from farmed imports.

I gleaned this from an Environment Agency (EA) report, Our Nations' Fisheries (the nations in question being England and Wales, in case you thought the agency was run by apostrophe ignoramuses). The report, which looks at migratory and freshwater fisheries, is generally very positive (four million anglers spending more than £3 billion a year, fish found at 98 per cent of the sites surveyed, and so on). But it's grim as the back of a tripe factory on prospects for eels, the most nutritious of all fish. Since the 1970s, their numbers have declined so rapidly that they are at just 1 per cent of their peak levels, the report warns.

Some years ago I was fishing in Denmark. An old eel fisherman rocked with laughter as he watched me catching roach and bream. For him, there was just one fish worth catching, and it wasn't slimy ol' bream that even a cat wouldn't eat.

He told me that the Danish rivers were heavily stocked with eels. "What a stupid idea, stocking with eels," I thought. "We've got more than enough of the pesky little slimers in the UK." Boat-fishing off Southend, I could catch 50lb of eels. They were everywhere.

Not any more. In 2001, 14,022 eels were stocked in English and Welsh rivers. But that hasn't made any difference. The result has been rocketing prices, especially for elvers, those baby eels that are considered a great delicacy. These have been fetching as much as £300 a kilo on the open market in recent years, and woe betide an average joe who tries to muscle in on the lucrative trade of catching them, especially on the River Severn.

It's become so bad that the EA, Gloucestershire Police, Gloucester City Council and British Waterways have just announced a joint campaign to pool resources and information "to combat the anti-social behaviour and lawlessness that gives the traditional activity of elver fishing a bad name".

May is hot time for elvers, and organised gangs take over parts of the Severn. This fishing generally takes place at night. The EA estimate that as many as 400 netsmen are scooping out the tiny fish on every spring tide.

Knives, clubs and even guns are commonplace. I heard talk that a senior SAS officer was covertly working with landowners to combat the gangs.

Bad news for elvers, but not a problem for fishermen, unless you are on the river when the heavies are at work. Elvers are little more than 70mm; the ones anglers (and jellied-eel makers) want are much bigger, 2lb and over.

But if more tiddlers don't swim back from the Sargasso Sea, there will be no big eels. And that means that for the foreseeable future, Cockneys will have to make do with foreign stuff.

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