“Every five years delay so far has roughly halved the remaining eel stock”

Scientist Willem Dekker, Chair of ICES Workshop on Baltic Eel, is positive towards the new export ban on eels. The clock is ticking. Full recovery of the critically endangered european eel is not expected before 2098 – if at all.

Related links:
EU national eel management plans
Graph: European eel, scenarios of recovery or extinction (pdf)

What is the most wide-spread fish stock managed under the European fishing policy? Though most readers will be familiar with this fish, probably nobody will even think of it as the one stock that binds us all: the European Eel. Thinking of the eel now, you might wonder what a slippery story like this has to do with the CFP.

The eel is a weird animal. Ever since Aristotle described how he scraped out an isolated pool, to find new eels after the rain had replenished the pool (spontaneous generation!), the curious biology of the species has puzzled mankind. And it still does. Following more than two millennia of experiments and observations, we still do not know how, where and under what conditions they reproduce; and we still have no idea of many other crucial aspects of their biology. But that is not the reason for our concern. The reasons for concern are that the stock has dwindled down over the decades; that fishing yield has decreased slowly over more than half a century, with less than 20% now remaining; that recruitment of young eel from the ocean has declined by 90-99% in the last thirty years; that fishermen, once found in hundreds of thousands in all rivers and estuaries, now face grim times of restrictions on their current low catches all over Europe. An obvious case for international management.

When I started my work in fisheries science in the early 1980s, one of the key words was: rational exploitation. Understanding the dynamics of a fish stock, one could set calculated targets, ensure optimal yield, even handle risk-based management. So what about the eel? What do we know of its dynamics, and what is the reason for its decline? Though many hypotheses have been raised (varying from pure overfishing, through habitat loss and pollution, to oceanic regime shifts and global climate change), we have to face the fact that none of us really understands. No single hypothesis explains the historical trends well. My own pet hypothesis says that first and foremost, almost all factors will lead to a reduction of the spawning stock. In turn, this will make social mating (if that is indeed what they do) a very lonely challenge, leading to an even more rapid decline in recruitment (Allee effect). A synergism of many anthropogenic and some non-anthropogenic factors negatively affecting the spawning stock, which leads to a crash in recruitment – that seems the most likely to me. But in practice, “potential synergistic effects” is just a very poor way of saying: we really have no idea what is going on.

In the early 1990s, Christopher Moriarty, then chairman of WG-EEL, noted that the decline in recruitment had lasted for more than an eel’s lifetime. Upon his advocacy, the first management advice was formulated: “The situation in 1993 must be seen as a watershed … the time [has] come to reconsider the needs and opportunities for stock-wide management actions.” Though it took five years to get this advice on the right table, and yet another five years to come to the first meaningful proposals for a recovery plan, and yet nearly another five years for considering and reconsidering all kinds of protective measures, a European protection plan for the eel was indeed adopted in 2007. Europe had overcome national self-interests, had overcome the obvious elusion to wait for further research first, and had even overcome the legal limits to the CFP concerning inland waters. And had embarked on a recovery project that will take many decades or more to completion. International action is finally being taken, but not knowing the reason for the stock decline, still nobody guarantees that implementation of the recovery plan will allow the stock to recover indeed.

Rational exploitation – that is a complex scientific concept, requiring a lot of maths, and a forceful government for implementation. In recent decades, the focus in fishery policies has shifted from authoritative approaches towards cooperative arrangements. The government’s restricted power to enforce is supplemented by the stakeholder’s willingness to contribute to the shared objectives, and to compromise on the conflicting ones. But once more, the eel is in a weird position: Eel fishing companies generally are small-scaled rural enterprises, with a very low degree of organisation at the national level, and absolutely no organisation at the international level. There simply is no stakeholder organisation for eel fishers across Europe; even regional métier-structured organisations (eg. all glass eel fishers in the Biscay area; all silver eel fishers in the Baltic area, etc.) are completely lacking. In the absence of true international stakeholder organisations (a few national organisations participated in international discussions), the international debates have been held mostly between national governments, that had to choose between near-sighted advocacy of their national fishing interests or far-sighted but old-fashioned enforcing of protective measures. Though national fishing interests did dominate the discussions at times, the need to protect ultimately prevailed in the formulation of the objectives..

The central idea in the eel recovery plan is that implementation of protective measures is most effectively achieved at the national level. Internationally uniform protective measures would have been ill-adapted to local circumstances, which would have failed the objectives completely. According to the recovery plan, all countries developed Eel Management Plans for the eel stock in their waters. Adjusted to local fishing practices, all plans are aiming at the same international target (a minimal contribution to the shared spawning stock, proportional to the natural share). Unlike the international discussions before, stakeholders were involved in these developments in most countries. This brought the national governments in an uncomfortable straddling position: stick to the obligatory international targets, or go with the national co-management process? Acknowledging the added complexity of identifiable personal interests and many confusing local details, the generous acceptance of the international targets did not come easy. And now, implementing the corresponding protection measures can be tough, ranging from a complete ban to major restrictions on fishing operations, depending on what country we are talking about.

The first written record that the eel stock was in decline dates back to 1968; the earliest discussions on the development of stock-wide management to around 1998; the development of national plans to 2008 – the development of a well-monitored and fully controlled recovery regime might easily take until 2018 or later (and full recovery is not expected before 2098, if it happens at all). Noting the complexity of the problems, the extreme spatial expanse, and our lack of understanding of the mechanisms at work, this substantial delay should not come as a surprise. Any new European policy will require time, even the urgent ones. But in the eel case, governments, fishers and conservationists all have the same ultimate interest: the earlier we get it done, the less the stock will have declined, the less severe further fishing restrictions can be, and the better the chance for recovery. Every five years delay so far roughly halved the remaining eel stock. While we struggle with our discussions and plans, the clock is ticking.

It is November 2010, the start of the glass eel fishing season in many estuaries south of Brussels. Past months, the political discussion was focused on the implementation of the CITES listing of eel – trade restrictions, primarily affecting the export of glass eel to Asia. Glass eel is the youngest stage we find in our waters, fished to seed aquaculture (in EU and Asia), but also to restock outdoor waters across Europe. In past decades, their price has grown to incredible high levels, now paying up to € 1000/kg or more. When the export to Asia is effectively banned (see cfp-reformwatch.eu), more glass eel might become available for restocking at an affordable price. But others think that restocked eels, being transported from here to there, might have lost their ability to migrate back to their spawning place. And still others prefer to grow them indoors before stocking into open water, to avoid high natural mortality. A terribly confusing debate between squarely opposing views on high economic interests, for which I can give just one certainty: nobody really knows what is best. And this was just one of the many many issues that we need to discuss when implementing the required protection… International orchestration is probably the best way of smoothing this tedious process, as in the debate on glass eel export indeed. In less than two years from now, the first post-evaluation of the eel recovery plan is scheduled. In all countries, that will bring discussions on the status, targets, means, effects and a whole lot more. By means of international orchestration now, there is a profit to be gained in 2012.

So where are we now? The decline of the eel stock has been well noted, a framework for action has been set up, initial management measures have been taken and the first post-evaluation is planned soon. We are on our way. Is this the right direction and speed? I can not say beyond doubt; the eel is simply too slippery for comfy rational management. Will we see a change for the good soon? No, that will take considerable time. So what should we do now? Resolute and steadfast continue our way towards protection, while we keep our eyes fixed on the recovery we want to achieve. By 2012, we will see how far we have come. If the decline has not stopped, do we step up our efforts, then? Whether that will make the difference for the future of the eel, I do not know. But I do know that the eel sets us all a thrilling challenge.

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