Eels have traditionally been caught, bred for trade and consumed live, fresh, chilled, frozen or smoked for many centuries, and are an integral part of many countries’ culinary backgrounds – from Asia, to the Americas, to Europe and beyond.
This elongated fish’s broad consumption spread is largely due to the family comprising some 800 species, with sizes ranging from just 30 grams to more than 25kg. The most popular varieties include the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) and East Asia’s favourite Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica). Indeed, the global demand for eels has traditionally been driven by East Asia, particularly in Japan.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a decade ago Japan accounted for 60% of the global eel consumption, but this now stands at a quarter of that figure. The FAO highlights that a lot of this decline is due to the product’s increasing popularity in non-traditional consumer markets, which is aligned with the unwavering international growth trend of Asian cuisine.
At the same time, it’s believed that global eel production has now plateaued and may have even begun to decline after 30 years of growth thanks to the expansion of eel farming. Eel aquaculture accounted for 95% of total production in 2013. Again, most of this growth has taken place in East Asia, with mainland China responsible for nearly 85% of worldwide eel production – reaching 150,000 tonnes in 2012 and 2013.
In Europe, though, the wild European eel has drastically declined in numbers. According to estimates from the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), until 2011 the recruitment level of glass eels, which is the number of baby eels produced each year, was only 1% of what it was before the 1980s. And despite a significant increase in glass eels recruitment since 2011, the abundance of eels at all the stages of their lifecycle remains very low. This is despite numerous measures being introduced to protect populations, including EU legislation requiring member states to implement management plans that allow at least 40% of adult eels to escape from inland waters to the sea where they can spawn.
Concerns over the impact international trade was having on the European variety led to exports being regulated through a listing in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2007. Then in 2010, the EU made it illegal to sell European-caught eels to markets outside the bloc.
While customs and seizures data and other sources have found that large quantities of eel fry have still been exported illegally from Europe as well as the Philippines, Indonesia and also within East Asia over recent years, it’s widely accepted that it is man, not fishermen, who pose the biggest threat to the eel’s existence.
Human-related factors, such as the removal of natural eel habitats, increased marine pollutants, the location of barriers to upstream migration and the introduction of marine turbines and pumps have all had a dramatic effect on numbers. Climate change is also thought to have played a part in the decline.
Despite the high profile decline of European eel populations, more abundant wild varieties are available. Pittman Seafoods sources almost all of its eels from New Zealand and has access to fisheries in Canada, both of which are highly regulated by authorities.