French opting for 'quick profit' on eel harvest
February 18 2010 Paul Eccleston
French fishermen are flouting EU rules and selling baby eels to China at a massive profit, a conservation group alleges.
One in every three eels caught should go towards a recovery plan aimed at restocking European wetlands and rivers which have suffered a dramatic decline in eel numbers.
Already three tons of eel have been sold to Asia where they will be ‘grown’ on aquaculture farms until they are big enough to be slaughtered for the food market.
And conservationists fear that the entire French eel quota – up to 14.5 tonnes – will be sent for export with none left for restocking.
France controls 90 per cent of the supply of baby eels – known as glass eels or elvers - and is absolutely essential to the success of the European Eel Recovery Plan drawn up by the EU.
But conservationists claim the French are putting short-term profitability before sustainability. With the collapse in eel numbers the market has become extremely lucrative with the current price for elvers in China reaching 850 Euros per kilo – compared with a market price in Europe of just 450 Euros only a few weeks ago.
Now the UK’s Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) a partnership of environmental, conservation and fishing communities has written to CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – demanding that action be taken.
SEG Chairman Andrew Kerr said: “ We have to stop the French. There is only a finite amount of eels and vital restocking won’t take place if they are all sold to China.
We feel the French are exploiting EU bureaucracy by exporting more eels than can be sustained.
“It is not just unintelligent it may even be illegal but unfortunately it is characteristic of the management of European fisheries.”
The European eel (Anguilla Anguilla) has suffered a catastrophic decline with numbers of vitally important young eels – known as elvers – down by as much as 99 per cent since 1980 in some areas especially the Northern and Baltic region.
In the River Severn in the UK and in France and Spain, the traditional regions of large eel recruitment, it is estimated there has been a 70% decline. It is on the IUCN Red List of Species as critically endangered.
Last month the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) published research which showed that the number of elvers reaching the River Thames in London have crashed by 97 per cent in the past five years.
The crash in numbers of returning eels across Northern Europe is blamed on overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, the damming of rivers which disrupts the eel’s migration routes, and climate change affecting ocean currents.
Last year the eel was given a CITES Appendix II listing which requires states to hold an export permit which can only be issued if it can be proved the export will not have a detrimental affect on the survival of the species
An EU Regulation also required all member states to introduce eel management plans which had to be in place by June of last year. This requires 35 per cent of captured eels less than 12cms in length to be used for restocking, rising to 60 per cent by 2013.
The SEG claims the French began exporting eels to Asia even though many EU national agriculture ministries were explicitly saying that the French Eel Management Plan had not been approved. The 14.5 tonnes of exports were only to be allowed under the Eel Recovery Regulation once the French plan was approved and once adequate provisions for restocking across Europe were made.
Last year the French landed 30 tonnes of eel and claimed the 14.5 tonnes for export represented just 21 per cent of an anticipated catch of 70 tonnes this year. But so far, with the eels season half over, they have landed just 10 tonnes. Each tonne represents 3m-4m elvers.
“ We now find that orders for restocking wetlands elsewhere in Europe have been placed and are now very unlikely to be filled as French Fisherman are to be allowed to make large short term profit through exports to China in priority over meeting the obligation to make 35% of the catch available for restocking,” said Mr.Kerr.
Peter Wood, a vet and member of SEG who is also managing director of Gloucester-based UK Glass Eels, Europe’s leading supplier of Glass Eels for stocking, said:
“If the French Eel Management Plan is agreed by the EU Commission without tighter controls to ensure the implementation of a secure principle of “priority for restocking” it is highly likely that satisfying the 14.5 tonnes for immediate profit will leave no glass eels to meet Europe’s restocking programmes.”
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