Eel, European (Caught at sea)
Capture method — All applicable methods
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — All Areas
Stock detail — All Areas
Updated: November 2019.
The status of European eel remains critical and the recruitment of European eel from the ocean remained low in 2019. Fisheries exploit all continental life phases: glass eel recruiting to continental waters, the immature growing yellow eel and the maturing silver eel. European eel has a low resilience to fishing pressure and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is known to occur. Glass eel recruitment is 1.4% of that in 1960-1979. In September 2008, and again in 2014, European eel was listed in the IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species and it is listed under CITES Appendix II. Since 2010, the import and export of European eel from the EU has been prohibited. ICES have advised a precautionary approach to be taken and that when this is applied for European eel, all anthropogenic impacts (e.g. caused by recreational and commercial fishing on all stages, hydropower, pumping stations, and pollution) that decrease production and escapement of silver eels should be reduced to, or kept as close as possible to, zero in 2020. The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) have a standard for European eel producers, however it is currently not able to demonstrate measurable improvements in wild European eel stocks, therefore SEG certified eel is included within this assessment.
European eel life history is complex. Eels are catadromous, meaning that they spawn in the sea and return to freshwater rivers and streams to grow. The European eel breeds in the mid-Atlantic in the south-western part of the Sargasso Sea. Larvae are carried by the Gulf Stream to the continental shelf of Europe in about 1 year, where they metamorphose into colourless elvers or glass eels and enter continental waters. Elvers then start to move up rivers, in UK, in February and April. When about 2-3 they start to develop tiny scales and after 4 years are completely scaled. The freshwater stage is a feeding and growing phase. At this stage they are known as yellow eels. As they mature and grow they change into silver eels. Eels that grow up in freshwater generally become females, while the ones in brackish water become males or females. Males change into silver eels when 6-12 years old (30-48cm), the females when 10-30 years old (50-130cm). As they mature sexually, they descend the river or migrate to the sea. If silver eels are prevented from returning to the sea, they start to feed again and can live for over 80 years. Growth and age at maturity are linked to regional temperature (mature later at colder temperatures). The average length of adults is around 60-80 cm, when they weigh around 1-2 kg. It is thought that they use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Eels die after spawning.
Criterion score: Critical fail info
There is one single European eel stock which is severely depleted. The status of European eel remains critical and the recruitment of European eel from the ocean remained low in 2019. ICES cannot assess the exploitation status relative to the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and precautionary approach reference points, as these are undefined and the stock size is considered to be well below potential biological reference points. Total landings and effort data are incomplete and there are inconsistencies in reporting between countries. ICES does not have the information needed to provide a reliable estimate of total catches of eel. European eel has a low resilience to fishing pressure and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is known to occur.
Fisheries for European eel take place on all available continental life stages throughout the distribution area, although fishing pressure varies from area to area, from almost nil to heavy overexploitation. Indices of both glass and yellow eel recruitment strongly declined from 1980 to 2011 and have remained low. The glass eel recruitment compared to that in 1960-1979 in the North Sea series was 1.4% in 2019 (provisional), 1.9% in 2018 and the previous 5-year mean was 1.7% (2012-2016). In the “Elsewhere Europe” series glass eel recruitment was 6% in 2019 (provisional), 8.9% in 2018 and the previous 5-year mean was 8.7% compared to that in 1960-1979. For the yellow eel, recruitment for 2018 was 26.4% of the 1960-1979 level and the previous 5-year mean was 16.6% (2013-2017).
ICES have advised a precautionary approach to be taken and that when this is applied for European eel, all anthropogenic impacts (e.g. caused by recreational and commercial fishing on all stages, hydropower, pumping stations, and pollution) that decrease production and escapement of silver eels should be reduced to, or kept as close as possible to, zero in 2020.
Non-fishing anthropogenic mortality factors are also an issue and can be grouped into issues resulting from the following: (a) hydropower, pumping stations, and other water intakes; (b) habitat loss or degradation; (c) pollution, diseases, and parasites; and (d) other management actions that may affect levels of predation, e.g. conservation vs. control of predators. Climate change may have effects, but these have not been quantified.”
There has never been a total allowable catch (TAC) for this stock. In September 2008, and again in 2014, European eel was listed in the IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species. The European eel is listed in CITES Appendix II (species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled) and in the EU implementation of CITES rules since 13 March 2009. Since 2010, import and export of eel from the EU has been prohibited. Some non-EU range states allow export of European eel, mostly to the Far East.
A management framework for European eel within the EU was established in 2007, but there is no internationally coordinated management plan for the whole stock area which extends beyond the EU. The objective of the EU regulation is the protection, recovery, and sustainable use of the stock. To achieve the objective, EU Member States have developed Eel Management Plans (EMPs) for their river basin districts. These are designed to reduce anthropogenic mortalities, so that there is a high probability that at least 40% of silver (mature) eels can return to the sea from the rivers where they have been maturing. This is relative to the best estimate of escapement that would have existed if no anthropogenic influences had impacted the stock. The framework required EU member states to report on progress in 2012, 2015, and 2018. In the latest reporting in 2018, nine of 95 eel management plans did not report all biomass indicators, and 17 did not report all mortality indicators. In 2020, an external evaluation of the Eel Regulation assessed its effectiveness and contribution to the recovery of the stock. The review found that while the eel regulation remains important in helping the stock to recover and that there has been noteworthy progress in reducing fishing effort, the status of European Eel remains critical. The UK is only partially meeting the 40% escapement target.
ICES notes that the stocking of eels is considered a management action in the EU regulation and many eel management plans, and that this stocking is reliant on a glass eel fishery catch. There is evidence that translocated and stocked eel can contribute to yellow and silver eel production in recipient waters, but information on contribution to actual spawning is missing due to the general lack of knowledge of the spawning of eel. Internationally coordinated research is required to determine any net benefit of restocking on the overall population, including carrying capacity estimates of glass eel source estuaries, detailed mortality estimates at each step of the stocking process, and performance estimates of stocked vs. non-stocked eels. The 2020 evaluation of the Eel Regulations notes that not all member states have achieved their restocking targets and the scientific evidence of the contribution of restocking to the overall biomass is limited. It adds that while a local benefits in some areas may be apparent, an assessment of net benefit to the wider eel stock is unquantifiable and there are risks, such as poor handling resulting in low survivorship and the introduction of disease or parasites.
Environmental impacts in marine, transitional and freshwaters all contribute to the anthropogenic stresses on eels, their mortality, and their reproductive success. In addition to fishing, pressures come from activities such as river developments and construction, and hydropower, pumping stations, and other water intakes. They result in: habitat loss or degradation; barriers to eel passage; deterioration in water quality; changes in levels of predation (e.g. conservation vs. control of predators), and the presence of non-native diseases and parasites. Climate change may have effects, but these have not been quantified. It is anticipated that the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) may result in improvements to the continental environment, and that this may have a positive effect on the reproductive potential of the silver eel.
The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) have a standard for European eel producers, however it is currently not able to demonstrate measurable improvements in wild European eel stocks, therefore SEG-certified eel is included within this assessment.
Fisheries for European eel exploit all continental life phases: glass eel recruiting to continental waters, the immature growing yellow eel and the maturing silver eel. There are multiple commercial and recreational fisheries with registered and non-registered vessels and these vary between local habitat, river, country and international regions. The main fisheries for eel take place while they are migrating, when they are trapped and netted in estuaries and inshore waters. While traditional fisheries for local consumption tend to focus on adult eels, the last fifteen years have seen the emergence of a fishery for glass eels, which are exported to Asian markets where they are fattened in farms before being sold. As a result, the price of glass eel has soared.
In general, eels are caught using a plethora of methods, including but not limited to, electric fishing, traps and pots, hooks, spears and forks, weirs, trawls, artisanal nets, and seines. Yellow eels are caught in seines, nets, traps, by hook and line, and with eel spears. Whereas silver eels are caught in traps and fixed nets during their migration to sea. Glass eels (juveniles) are fished from October to May and are caught for stock aquaculture facilities and heavily fished areas. Yellow eel fisheries mostly start in April, with an increase in catches in June/July, then a decrease until October when the season ends. The fishing pattern for the silver eel is similar to that for the yellow eel, but the peak in catches is in August-October. The level of bycatch is not known but it is thought that this will vary depending on gear type used.
Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.Anchovy, anchovies
Herring or sild
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
ReferencesFroese R. and Pauly D. (Editors), 2013. Anguilla anguilla, European Eel. Available at https://www.fishbase.de/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=35&AT=european+eel [Accessed on 14.11.2019].
European Commission. 2020. Commission Working Document: Evaluation of Council Regulation (EC) No 1100/2007 of 18 September 2007 establishing measures for the recovery of the stock of European eel. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/sites/fisheries/files/swd-2020-35_en.pdf [Accessed on 28.02.2020].
Hanel, R., Briand, C., Diaz, E., DOring, R., Sapounidis, A., Warmerdam, W., Andres, M., Freese, M., Marcelis, A., Marohn, L., Pohlmann, J.-D., van Scharrenburg, M., Waidmann, N., Walstra, J., Werkman, M., de Wilde, J., Wysujack, K. 201. Research for PECH Committee - Environmental, social and economic sustainability of European eel management, European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels. Available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/629189/IPOL_STU(2019)629189_EN.pdf [Accessed on 14.11.2019]
ICES. 2019. European eel (Anguilla anguilla) throughout its natural range. In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, ele.2737.nea. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.4825. [Accessed on 14.11.2019]
ICES. 2019. Joint EIFAAC/ICES/GFCM Working Group on Eels (WGEEL). ICES Scientific Reports. 1:50. 177 pp. Available at http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.5545 [Accessed on 14.11.2019]
Jacoby, D. and Gollock, M. 2014. Anguilla anguilla. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014: e.T60344A45833138. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2014-1.RLTS.T60344A45833138.en. [Accessed on 14.11.2019].