Should we eat eel? MCS and ICES remain opposed to Sustainable Eel Group scheme
March 21 2012 Lewis Smith
Many chefs would love to serve eel, the Sustainable Eel Group believes it can guarantee sustainable supplies. But it remains on the Marine Conservation Society’s list of fish to avoid. So what’s the problem?
European eel have been classified as a critically endangered species. They have, after all, suffered heavy declines across the continent since the 1970s. Glass eels, the juvenile stage as they arrive in Europe, have been particularly hard hit, with a decline of 95 to 99 per cent in 30 years.
Many restaurants have now, as they did with bluefin tuna, taken eel off their menus – especially those that want to demonstrate their sustainable credibility through Fish2fork.
Caprice Holdings restaurants took eel off the menu because of concerns about its numbers but still get requests for it, especially at J Sheekey which was known for its stewed eels and other eel dishes.
Tim Hughes, chef director at Caprice, said: “I enjoyed cooking eel. There’s so much you can do with a smoked eel. We’ve got a tradition of eel in Britain. You go back to jellied eel and there are some fantastic smokeries. If you get it with a green sauce it’s got that lovely richness. As long as it gets the ok from Fish2fork and the MCS I would like to put it back on the menu.”
With the creation of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) and the development of its Sustainable Eel Standard there was hope at least a few migratory fish could be cooked and served again by the nation’s best chefs without threatening future stock levels.
The SEG states: “This Standard is the first version of an initiative to identify and promote the most sustainable and responsible practices in the eel fishing, with the aim of protecting eel stocks and enhancing their recovery. It is based on the best available science.”
It places a variety of demands on suppliers, including stipulations on the type of equipment used in catching the eels, a limit on permitted mortality levels, and rules on the traceability of each fish.
Crucially, the standard also demands that a significant proportion of glass eels are returned to the wild, once they have spent several weeks growing in the safety of captivity. For silver eels there is the stipulation that at least 40 per cent are able to pass downstream unharmed as they head off to the Sargasso Sea.
The standard was put together with the same methodology as the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability label, which is regarded as a gold standard of seafood eco-labelling. The Sustainable Eel Group, however, has yet to convince the Marine Conservation Society is good enough at protecting European eels to be treated as being any better than industry best practice.
Dave Parker, fisheries officer at the MCS, said that the group followed scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) when judging whether fish should be put on its list of species to avoid eating.
As yet, he said, there is no scientific evidence that taking glass eels from the wild, allowing them to grow in captive safety for several weeks and then putting them back in the wild does anything to increase breeding stock. In particular, he said there is no evidence any captured and releases as juvenile eels have survived to silver eel maturity and to make it back to the Sargarsso Sea.
The latest ICES advice is also clear that it regards fishing for eels and cooking them as activities that should be avoided. It stated in November: “The status of eel remains critical and urgent action is needed. ICES reiterates its previous advice that all anthropogenic mortality (e.g. recreational and commercial fishing, hydropower, pollution) affecting production and escapement of eels should be reduced to as close to zero as possible until there is clear evidence that both recruitment and the adult stock are increasing.... stocking should not be used to continue fishing.”
Whatever the advice on whether they should be eaten, Dr Matt Gollock, of the Zoological Society of London, believes the Sustainable Eel Standard, which he helped create, is a force for good.
France catches more eels than any other European country and despite reducing its glass eel fleet from 1,800 vessels to 600 in ten years it is not going to shut down the fishery, he said.
“If the fishery is going to continue, and France if the place where that fishery is happening at its largest, I would argue having a standard in place is a positive step. It’s about being pragmatic.”
For the moment, European eel remains a fish the MCS and Fish2fork advise against eating. Fish2fork will, however keep a close eye on developments.
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