Europe's Eels Are Slipping Away, Scientists Warn

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
October 9, 2003

Although found throughout much of the world, eels are wriggling towards oblivion, European fisheries scientists say.

The warning came at the annual meeting of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, held last month in Estonia. Scientists there reported that the number of juvenile European eels (Anguilla anguilla) reaching rivers from their mid-Atlantic nursery grounds has crashed 99 percent since the 1970s. The closely-related American eel (Anguilla rostrata) and Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) are also threatened with extinction, experts reported.

If nothing else, the slimy, snake-like fish tend to provoke strong reactions from people. Some find them repellent. Others adore eels, particularly after they've been roasted, smoked, or stewed. Then there are those whose jobs depend on eels, some 25,000 fishermen in Europe alone.

Experts say wide-ranging conservation measures are urgently needed if the eel is to be saved.

Factors behind the European eel collapse are still unclear. But dams, pollution, overfishing, invasive parasite species, and ocean warming have been identified as possible causes.

Willem Dekker, a biologist at the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research in Ijmuiden, Holland, is among the scientists to warn about the species' decline. He said: "If we wait much longer there won't be much to protect anymore. The current decline might constitute the transition towards extinction."

Last week, the European Commission announced a Europe-wide action plan to conserve remaining stocks, which, it agrees, are now "outside safe biological limits."

"We need to ensure this important resource, both as a fishery and in aquaculture, is safeguarded," said EC fisheries commissioner Franz Fischler.

Destination Unknown

Despite its widespread distribution and commercial importance, the life cycle of the European eel remains clouded in mystery.

Unlike lampreys, salmon, and other anadromous fish, which migrate from the ocean to fresh water to breed, eels head in the opposite direction.

Remarkably, nobody has been able to locate the eels' final destination, although experts believe eels mate and die in the millions somewhere in the Sargasso Sea, a becalmed expanse of the mid-Atlantic Ocean up to three miles (five kilometers) deep. (American eels are also thought to spawn there.)

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