In 2003 Tom Fort, the fishing correspondent for the Financial Times, published what must be the eelers’ bible: The Book of Eels. In it he wrote: “Its shape is against it, for – although we have learned that it is right to love, or at least tolerate, snakes – the serpentine form still taps into deep-rooted instincts of revulsion. Take into account the eel’s muted colouring, its snoutiness, its thick coat of viscous slime and its convulsive writhings when removed from its elements into ours, and you have a creature with a tricky image problem.” This is true. No eel is ever going to win a prize for glamour. But in the past it’s won a million prizes for its firm, white flesh and will do so again just as soon as there are enough of them. For this is a fish out of sync with the modern era.

Every autumn, night after moonless night, all the way across across Europe, Anguilla anguilla slithers across the fields to the nearest river from its ponds, stews and ditches. By means of navigation as yet unknown, swimming in their undulating fashion at roughly 50 miles a day (80 kms), they cover the 3,000 miles (4,800 kms) to the strange and wondrous place we know as the Sargasso Sea. There, in waters of an incredible deep blue, beneath huge skeins of sargassum weed, south-east of the Nares Deep and north of the Puerto Rico Trench, the mature eels of the old world copulate, spawn and probably die. No adult eel has ever been taken in the Sargasso or anywhere near it. No eggs (of which the female produces a very large number) have been recovered. The whole process is an extraordinary, fabulous mystery. All that is known is that each egg is coated in oil and the moment it’s extruded from the female eel, it starts to rise in the water. Within a short space of time, maybe within hours, the egg hatches and thus is born the glass eel or thin-head which will now drift for three years upon the varying currents of the Atlantic before making landfall. As a thin-head it has the shape of an oleander leaf. This it now loses and assumes its familiar cylindrical shape. It also assumes the name “elver” and thus starts its tale of woe.

Unlike the salmon, the young eel or elver has no homing instinct to direct it to a particular river. It will drift round the coastline until its fancy is taken by a harbour, an estuary or a river and there, in all probability, it will be trapped, killed and then air-freighted to Japan, where it is estimated that 100,000 tons of eel are consumed annually. Such a quantity amounts to upper millions or even billions of individual elvers. Naturally prices have risen and stocks have declined. As a matter of fact the reduction of the eel population in the last twenty years has been of the order of no less than 95%.

Other factors have been at work. The inability of scientists to come up with a way of breeding infant eels has prevented the elver population being increased artificially; and the demands of modern civilisation as exemplified by motorways, housing estates and hydro dams have blocked the routes by which those elvers that survived could ascend to the inland stillwaters to wax fat for maybe twenty years before those damp autumn nights when in obedience to some vital internal signal they leave home and set out on their final, astonishing journey – to the Sargasso Sea.


The Eel from Grote, Vogt and Hofer

Fresh-Water Fishes of Central Europe

The female eel can grow to a length of 5 feet (1.5 m) and weigh 5 lbs (2.3 kg). The male is generally much smaller. It is thought that in ideal conditions the eel represents about half of the total biomass in a river. Predators of fish, especially herons and otters, will take eels in preference to any other species. Gulls too are greedy for them, despite that the protective slime commented on by Tom Fort gums up their beaks. If you see a large number of gulls gathered at the riverside in the spring stropping their beaks on their breast feathers, you’ll know the elvers are running.

The eel is listed as a critically endangered species and is on Greenpeace’s seafood red list. But all is not lost. In 2013, to the surprise of all involved with eels, a bumper crop of elvers drifted in from the Atlantic. In recent years bumper crops of elvers have drifted in from the Atlantic, restoring to the big eel rivers of France and southern Britain some of their former plenty. Moreover, they now have human helpers to get them round all the obstacles that other humans have built in their way.


 Photo David Hay