Sunday, 30 April 2017

Eel patrol: Tracking down poachers with the wildlife police

21 April 2017

Fishing for the endangered European eel is allowed only under strict rules. Clare Wilson joins the environmental officers patrolling the banks of the UK’s River Severn

It’s a cold clear night and the River Severn is sparkling under a full moon. Tonight, I’m on eel patrol – out with staff from the UK’s Environment Agency on the watch for illegal fishing of the critically endangered European eel.

This mysterious creature with a mind-boggling life cycle has crashed in numbers by 95 per cent in the past three decades.

European eels spend most of their lives lurking in muddy rivers. At about 10 years old, they swim thousands of kilometres out to the ocean, until they reach the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic. There they spawn – and die.

Their tiny offspring then make the opposite journey. The Gulf Stream sweeps them to the mouths of European rivers and during the large spring tides the young elvers, about the size of an earthworm, come swarming up the waterways.

The Severn gets a large share because of its prime location facing the Atlantic Ocean and the huge funnel shape of its estuary. They once came in such numbers locals would catch them in pillow cases and hold elver-eating contests. They are supposed to be tipped into a hot frying pan still live and wriggling, in recipes such as elvers with eggs and bacon.

Now elver fishing is only allowed on a few rivers and under strict rules: the “elvermen” must use dip nets below a certain size. And, they can sell only to licensed dealers who must then send 60 per cent for restocking less favoured rivers, with the rest going to aquafarms and restaurants in Europe.

Then there’s the black market, in which elvers are illegally exported to meet demand in China and Japan. Last month, a batch of 600,000 live elvers was found at London Heathrow Airport in a container headed for Hong Kong. That batch probably came from France, but the illegal trade goes on in the UK too, says Chris Bainger at the Environment Agency.

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