Conservationists suggest the decline of the critically endangered species has been halted and perhaps reversed
Eels have been caught in record numbers for the third year running, leading conservationists to suggest their decline may have bottomed out.
European eels have suffered a massive slump over the last four decades and have been classified as critically endangered but there are now signs that the decline has been halted and perhaps reversed.
The flooding experienced across much of the UK because of a series of severe storms since Christmas could even benefit the species by washing juvenile eels over barriers – including flood defences and dams – that might otherwise prevent them from getting inland. In France, where the arrival of glass eels from across the Atlantic is regarded as a strong indicator of the numbers likely to reach the UK, catches have exceeded all expectations over the last few weeks.
Quotas in three of the main eel rivers in France have been met so rapidly that there are now forecasts that record numbers will reach the UK.
In 2013 the number of glass eels – the juvenile form that reaches the European coast after migrating across the Atlantic – seen arriving in the Severn and other UK rivers was the best for two decades but 2014 now promises to be even better.
Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, said the signs are that the decline in the numbers of glass eels reaching the coast of Europe may have "bottomed".
Quotas for the Adour River in south-west France were completed within 11 days of the season starting in November, compared to three months in 2012.
The Gironde's season opened on 15 November and the 3.7-tonne quota was filled in eight days compared to six weeks in 2012 and three months in 2011.
It had been hoped that fishing in the Loire, which has a bigger quota, would confirm the early hopes of a third bumper year in succession but fishermen have decided to delay their season because of a slump in the market price.
However, the Arzal estuary, which is further north, has since completed its half-tonne quota in just a few days, and there have been reports that illegal fishing has been widespread in France, further indicating that glass eels are present in large numbers. The French authorities have been using night vision and helicopters in their attempts to tackle illegal fishing and the illicit trade in glass eels.
In the UK the large number of juvenile eels arriving earlier this year has meant record restocking could take place.
More than 1 million young eels were released into UK waterways last year, more than ever before. About three-quarters of the juvenile eels were released almost immediately further upstream, having been carried past barriers blocking their passage inland. The remaining quarter were kept in captivity to grow bigger before being released.
In recent weeks there have been large releases in several locations including Blagdon Lake in the Mendips, the River Teme in Shropshire and Llangorse Lake in Wales.