Eel, European (Caught at sea)
Capture method — All applicable methods
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — All Areas
Stock detail —
Eels are exploited in all life stages and those that are fished do not have the chance to breed. Eels have a low resilience to fishing and a complex life cycle. Fishing mortality is both high on juvenile (glass eel) and older eel (yellow and silver eel) in many water systems. Estimated total yield has declined to about half that of the mid-1960s. Other anthropogenic or man-made factors (habitat loss, contamination, barriers to migration and transfer of diseases etc) have also contributed to their decline. European eel is listed under CITES Appendix II. This listing implies that international trade in eel requires special permission and is complementary to conservation actions developed in the EU management plan. Also listed as Critically Endangered on IUCN Red List. Avoid eating European eel at any stage in its lifecycle. The most recent assessment (2018) and advice from ICES is that the status of eel remains critical and that all anthropogenic mortality (e.g. recreational and commercial fishing, hydropower, pumping stations, and pollution) affecting production and escapement of silver eels should be reduced to - or kept as close to - zero as possible.
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 southwestern 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: Default red rating info
There is one single European eel stock. This is severely depleted and at a historical minimum.
The status of eel remains critical. Indices of both glass and yellow eel recruitment strongly declined from 1980 to about 2010, and have remained at a low level since.
The annual recruitment of glass eel to European waters in 2018 is 2.1% (1.6% in 2017; 2.7% in 2016) of the 1960-1979 level in the North Sea series and 10.1% (8.7% in 2017; 10.7% in 2016) in the Elsewhere Europe series. The annual recruitment of young yellow eel to European waters in 2018 was 29% (24% in 2017; 21% in 2016) of the 1960-1979 level.
While exploitation status and stock size reference points are undefined, it is considered that stock size is likely well below potential biological reference points.
ICES advises that when the precautionary approach 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 to zero as possible in 2019.
In 2007 European eel was included in CITES Apendix II that deals with species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but for which trade must be controlled to ensure its survival. The listing was implemented in March 2009.
In September 2008, and again in 2014, eel was listed in the IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species.
A management framework for eel within the EU was established in 2007 through an EU regulation (EC Regulation No. 1100/2007; EC, 2007), but there is no internationally coordinated management plan for the entire 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, designed to allow at least 40% of the silver eel biomass to escape to the sea with high probability, relative to the best estimate of escapement that would have existed if no anthropogenic influences had impacted the stock.
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 tended 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 soared, to the point where in the mid-2000s it exceeded that of caviar. In general eels are caught using a plethora of methods, including but not limited to, electric fishing, traps and pots, hooks, spears & forks, weirs, trawls, artisanal nets and seines. Older eels -yellow and silver eels - are caught by a number of methods: Yellow eels are caught in seines, traps, by hook and line, and with eel spears. Silver eels are caught in traps and fixed nets during their migration to the sea. Glass eel (juvenile) is fished from October to May and is 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.
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, Chinook, King Salmon
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Coho , Silver, White
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Scad, Horse Mackerel
Tuna, Atlantic bluefin (Caught at sea)