The European eel has a complex life cycle. Adult eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean and their larvae migrate to European shores by following the Gulf Stream current. Eels live for an average of 5-20 years in freshwater and brackish waters such as rivers, coastal lagoons and lakes. After this time, they return to the sea to spawn once and then die.
Previously, European eels could be found in various EU waters, including the Baltic Sea. However, currently, they are primarily found in the rivers of Atlantic EU countries and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, there has been a significant decrease in the number of eels reaching European river systems over the past 20 years. As a result, the European eel is now listed as 'critically endangered' on the IUCN Red List.
The European eel is facing a critical situation primarily because of human activities, such as
- fishing in marine, brackish and freshwaters
- barriers to up- and downstream migration (including damming of river systems for hydro-electric power)
Other potential causes include parasites and changes to the course of the Gulf Stream. Poaching (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) and the illegal export of eels to Asia are additional pressing concerns.
The status of the European eel is regularly monitored, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) provides scientific advice to support the development and implementation of measures for stock recovery. Scientific advice consistently confirms that eels are in critical condition at all stages of their life cycle.
The EU Eel Regulation provides a framework for the recovery of the European eel and the sustainable use of the stock. The key objective is to allow more mature eels (silver eels) to reach the open sea on their way to their marine spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea and enable juvenile eels (glass eels) arriving on the EU coasts (mostly in France on the Atlantic coast, but also in the UK, Spain and Portugal) to migrate upstream to their freshwater habitats.
To achieve this objective, it is important to implement specific solutions through proper planning and execution. Member States should take the lead by creating Eel Management Plans that take into account regional and local conditions. Success in implementing these measures relies on close collaboration and consistent action at the EU, Member State, and local and regional levels. It is also crucial to involve and inform the public sectors that are directly affected by these initiatives through consultation and engagement.
Adoption of the marine action plan as part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. As per this plan, the Commission is urging Member States to urgently improve the conservation of European eel stock. The approach should be comprehensive, addressing various human activities and emphasising the need for increased transboundary cooperation.
The European Commission published the results of the evaluation of the Eel Regulation which concluded that the regulation is fit for purpose; however, there is still room for improvement in the implementation by Member States.
Since 2018, the EU has implemented a temporary fishing closure for eels in marine and brackish waters. This closure applies to both commercial and recreational fishing activities for eels at all life stages in the Atlantic, North and Baltic Seas, as well as in the Mediterranean.
EU countries decided to prohibit the trade of European eel outside of the EU.
Adoption of the EU Eel Regulation 1100/2007.
This regulation allows for the management of eel fisheries through long-term plans developed by EU countries at the river-basin level. These plans also include measures for habitat restoration and other non-fishery conservation efforts.
National eel management plans
Under the Eel Regulation, EU countries are required to create management plans for the recovery of European eels. These plans include various measures such as limiting fishing and other activities that harm eels, addressing predators, aquaculture, and restocking efforts. Funding for these activities can be provided through the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF).
EU countries must take measures to
- improve eel migration by facilitating their movement through rivers
- allowing 40% of adult eels to return to the sea to spawn
- set restrictions on professional and recreational fishing
- restock suitable inland waters with young eels
EU countries that catch juvenile eels (less than 12 cm long) are required to reserve 60% of their catches for restocking within the EU.
So far, the European Commission has approved plans from 18 EU countries (BE, CZ, DK, EE, FI, FR, DE, EL, IE, IT, LV, LT, LU, NL, PL, PT, ES, SE), as well as a joint plan for the Minho River in Spain and Portugal.
In recent years, there has been an increase in global efforts to address the urgent issue of eel conservation. The eel species is included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that steps must be taken to ensure that trade does not harm their survival.
Additionally, the European eel has been listed in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). This listing aims to develop an international mechanism for better cooperation in conserving the European eel. The EU actively participates in these international processes.
Council Regulation (EU) 2024/257 fixing for 2024, 2025 and 2026 the fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks, applicable in Union waters and, for Union fishing vessels, in certain non-Union waters
For millions of years, eels have been migrating from the Atlantic ocean into European rivers. Today the eel population has fallen to a historic low. But scientists, industry, NGOs and regulators are working together to restore stocks.