Why you must feel for the eel

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THIS is a good time of year to be a salmon, but a bad time to be an eel. Being thin, slimy and snake-like is a pretty big handicap, never mind the bit about having to swim all the way to the Caribbean if you want sex. But around this time, the poor eel is having about as much fun as a Manchester United fan in Liverpool.

Even eel, pie and mash shops in London are struggling, according to the Independent. Once the capital had more than 200 shops serving jellied eels; now there are around 20. These shops are not helped by a world-wide shortage of eels, which now sell at more than pounds 3 a pound wholesale - at least 50p a pound more than salmon. Sadly, the shops rely on foreign eels rather than British ones. But I can remember the days . . .

Most fishermen have caught eels. Dangle a worm hard on the bottom of many rivers and you will still hook one within minutes. But these are small ones weighing a few ounces, nicknamed "bootlaces". They squirm into a living knot, curling around your line and leaving it covered with huge blobs of snot. The slime plays a key part in enabling eels to adapt from saltwater to fresh, and to protect from disease. It's a vital part of eel "jelly". But it's hard to love a creature that leaves your trousers looking as if Barry Manilow has used them as a handkerchief.

Unlovely they may be, but eels are not unloved. John Sidley, of Birmingham, who died a couple of years ago, thought so much of them that he spearheaded a Put Eels Back campaign in the 1980s. Previously, fishermen had killed every eel they caught. Sidley was almost as strange as the eels he adored. He kept a pet one called Rover at home for years. One night Rover escaped from its tank, and Sidley's wife, going downstairs in bare feet to make an early-morning cup of tea, trod on it. Doesn't bear thinking about, does it?

Sidley discovered that eels are extremely long-lived and that a 5lb eel could be 50 or 60 years old. "When I found that out, I never killed another eel," he said. "It would be like killing a pensioner." Well, I did say he was a little strange.

I must admit that I've done my share of killing these pensioners, though for monetary reasons rather than because I didn't like the way they looked. The local fishmonger, in those days when MacFisheries and similar shops still existed, paid five shillings a pound for every eel I caught, as long as they were delivered alive. (I kept them in my mum's washing machine when she went to work.) For most of the summer, I would fish all night, often catching three or four 2lb eels. It was good money (certainly more than I earned as a junior reporter) but the job's prospects were unpromising, and it was scarcely an occupation to impress the girls.

Sizeable eels can still earn good money. A Hampshire bailiff who controls several miles of river tells me he earns more on the nights that the eels run downstream and off to the Sargasso Sea than he gets for a whole year of bailiffing. Some strange gene prompts all the eels to head seawards around the same time. They have an extraordinary ability to cross land as long as it's reasonably damp. Fishing all night and seeing eels "swimming" through grass is perhaps the spookiest of all fishing experiences.

However, at this time of year it's the returning eels that are targeted. Millions of elvers, baby eels only a couple of inches long, return to the rivers in huge shoals. They are preyed upon by gulls, herons and kingfishers, pike, perch and trout, even by larger members of their own kind, but most of all by man.

With elvers fetching around pounds 60 a kilo, there's big money to be made. Although the National Rivers Authority issues netting licences for hand-held scoop nets, illegal gangs using large nets can make up to pounds 3,000 a night.

Most netters are unwilling to disclose their earnings for fear of visits by the taxman. But there is talk of people earning more than pounds 20,000 for a couple of months' work. On some Welsh rivers like the Wye and the Severn, the gangs are so aggressive that even the police are unwilling to intervene. Bailiffs turn a blind eye rather than risk being beaten up.

As one bailiff told me: "It's a bit of a blessing, because at least when these gangs are netting eels, they are not poaching salmon. It gives the salmon a few weeks when they can run upriver without being netted, speared or poisoned." It's not much consolation for the eels, though.