Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The secret life of the slippery eel

Once they were nearing extinction. Now, down in Somerset, a group of fisherman have assembled to catch a million of them in a single night. What has changed?

Last Monday, an hour after sunset on the Taunton Road in Bridgwater, a cluster of white vans gathered behind the BMW garage. Beside them, a small crowd of fishermen laden with plastic buckets and wooden trays of baby glass eels stood waiting for the night's haul to be weighed. The eels slithered and roiled. High tide and a full moon had brought an extraordinary number to these shores. And on the banks of the River Perrett and the Severn, fishermen and conservationists assembled with the aim of catching a million of the creatures in a single night and – since their migratory route had been blocked by dams, weirs and flood defences – redistributing them further along the river.

The first ever eel conference was held here in 2009. It had been a hard year for eels; numbers had dwindled starkly. Over the past 200 years, we have drained and destroyed 80% of our wetlands, while 25,000 hydropower stations and tens of thousands of unscreened waterpumps across Europe threatened the species further. Early the following year, the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) was established, and a regulation introduced, requiring each country to devise an eel-protection plan. "In Britain," says Andrew Kerr, chairman of SEG, "we lead in unblocking the eels' migratory pathways."

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