Eels need an international moratorium like that of whales

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is a well-known fish, but perhaps not so well known that within the genus Anguilla There are 18 other species. All of them migrate between the sea, where they are born, and the freshwater systems in which they grow. After a period that can exceed 20 years, they reach maturity and return to the sea to reproduce and die.

These migrations have shrouded the eels in a halo of mystery. But so much mystery and fascination have not been a barrier to eels also being eaten.

All cultures that have had eels on hand have fed on them. Eel remains are common in Paleolithic sites throughout Europe. The Relations of Philip II give an account of the taste for eels among the people of central Spain at the end of the 16th century. A few years later, on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the battered crew of the Mayflower celebrated the first American Thanksgiving for the help they received from the natives, much of which was eels (for many, these, and not the turkey, they should be the symbol of the celebration).

American eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Contemporary gastronomy gives multiple uses to eels, from European smoked foods to Jangeo-gui Korean or all-i-pebre From Valencia. It can be said that eating eels is one of those things of a lifetime. But the industrialization and globalization of eel exploitation have caused their collapse.

A moratorium is necessary.

Whaling moratorium

Throughout the 20th century, almost 3 million large cetaceans were hunted. Given the obvious decline of some species, the International Whaling Commission was created in 1946, with the mission of guaranteeing “the conservation of resources for (…) the orderly development of the whaling industry.” As the years went by, the failure of this mission became evident, since the populations of large cetaceans could not resist the hunting pressure they were suffering. A cessation of activity was necessary.

file 20231204 23 pf57ir.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Evolution of the catches of 4 of the species most intensely persecuted by the whaling industry throughout the 20th century: blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), northern whale (Balaenoptera borealis) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the latter illustrated below.
Author, adapted from

After several unsuccessful attempts, in 1982 the moratorium on whaling activity was agreed, implemented since 1986. To reach the majority necessary for the moratorium, the role of member countries without a whaling industry (such as Mongolia, Austria or Mali) was essential, as well as the change in position of some countries that did hunt whales, among which Spain stood out.

Just two months before the vote, Spain opposed the moratorium because it claimed to exercise “absolute and truly exemplary control over whaling.” However, he changed his vote. in extremisand was decisive in the approval.

Even so, Spain maintained its whaling activity to the limit of what was permitted. In October 1985, a fin whale was killed in Galician waters, the last catch of the Spanish whaling industry.

The whaling moratorium undoubtedly has weaknesses, but it is a collective success for humanity. Taking her as an example, David Attemborough has said:

“We know what the problems are and how to solve them. The only thing we lack is collective action.”

And that’s exactly what we’re missing with eels.

Towards an eel moratorium

An international moratorium like the whaling ban would be the most effective measure to conserve eels. International coordinated action is essential to address problems that affect multiple species, whose distribution spans many countries and which are subject to international trade. The moratorium must imply a total cessation of fishing activity for a reasonable period (at least a decade) and a total ban on the marketing of eel products, in any format.

The most intensely exploited and threatened eel species are those from temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, in addition to the European and Japanese (A. japonica) and American (A. rostrata). No less than 20 years ago the Quebec Declaration made an urgent call for the protection of these fish. Ten years later the situation had not improved at all, and it still does not. Maintaining exploitation will prevent any possible recovery and will ultimately lead to the extinction of these wonderful animals.

file 20231204 19 9zmues.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Evolution 1960-2000 of an abundance index of juveniles of the three most exploited and threatened eel species: Japanese (japonica eel), European (Anguilla anguilla) and American (Anguilla rostrata). The map above shows their distribution areas.

That the moratorium affects eels in general, and not specific species, is essential in the context of the globalization of Japanese cuisine, which accounts for most of the use of eel worldwide. The eels (unagi) are an omnipresent element on menus in Japanese restaurants around the world. This massive use of eel is the driving force behind its illegal trafficking, which is the biggest crime against wildlife worldwide and affects multiple species.

But the eel’s problems are not limited to illegality or Japanese culture. Large quantities of eel are still legally eaten throughout Europe, and their consumption is promoted at various food festivals. In Spain, eel, once abundant and cheap, became more expensive as it became scarce, becoming an exclusive product. Instead of abandoning consumption, this exclusivity spurred interest in elvers, as a sign of status, resulting in greater intensity of exploitation, more scarcity, higher price and greater image of exclusivity. A spiral is generated that, without external regulation, will end with extinction.

file 20231204 29 8gh94g.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
European eel in a river in Girona. Author: Lluís Zamora.

By the way

Coordinating international conservation actions is not easy, but the whaling moratorium shows that it is possible. And along this path, the decisions made at the regional or state level are important.

In the case of the European eel, the decisions taken by the Agriculture and Fisheries Council are crucial, supposedly taking into account the recommendations of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. However, it has been recommended to ban the species for more than 20 years, and It has never been attended to. As was the case in the International Whaling Commission, the countries and regions that commercially exploit eel, together with the lobbies related to this exploitation, have moved their chips to maintain the activity.

Spain has traditionally been very active in defending eel fishing. Under current conditions, this position is a bet on the extinction of the species. Repeating the arguments of 1982 on whaling, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food believes that fishing can be maintained because work is being done in other areas (repopulation, predator management, habitat improvements, in all cases questionable measures) to have the situation under control. A mirage.

The European Council for Agriculture and Fisheries meets on December 10 and 11. Spain has the opportunity to change its traditional role and start defending the conservation of the eel, as it did with the whales. Europe has a new opportunity to heed the advice of experts and implement a ban. And, together, we have the opportunity to generate examples that serve to build a global moratorium on eels.

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