European eel has a complex life cycle: adults spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean and the larvae migrate towards European shores following the Gulf Stream current. Eels live on average 5-20 years in freshwaters and brackish waters (rivers, coastal lagoons and lakes) before returning to sea to spawn once and die.
The eel’s habitat used to span across EU waters (including in the Baltic), but they are now found mostly in the rivers of Atlantic EU countries and in the Mediterranean. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic decline in the number of eels reaching European river systems. European eel is listed as "critically endangered" under the IUCN Red List.
The critical situation of the European eel is due to various human activities, notably
- fishing in marine, brackish and freshwaters
- barriers to up- and downstream migration (including damming of river systems for hydro-electric power)
Possible other causes include parasites and changes to the course of the Gulf Stream. Poaching (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU)) and illegal export to Asia are other major concerns.
The status of the European eel is monitored regularly, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) provides scientific advice to support the development and implementation of the measures for the stock recovery. Scientific advice confirms that the status of eels at all life stages remains critical.
In 2007, the EU adopted the Eel Regulation which provides a framework for the recovery of the eel stock. As a result, eel fisheries are now managed under long-term plans drawn up by the EU countries at river-basin level. Those plans also provide for non-fisheries conservation measures, e.g. related to habitat restoration.
The objectives of this framework are to
- limit fishing effort to sustainable levels and to find the right balance of conservation measures
- allow more mature (silver eels) escape to their marine spawning grounds and juvenile (glass eels) migrate upstream to their freshwater habitats (mostly in France on the Atlantic facade, but also in the UK, Spain and Portugal)
- restock eels in the rivers of Europe
In December 2010 EU Member States decided not to allow trade of European eel outside the EU.
Since 2018, a 3-month fishing closures has been introduced at EU level. Currently this measure applies to commercial and recreational fishing for eels at all life stages in the Atlantic, North and Baltic Seas, as well as in the Mediterranean.
Global coordination and enforcement actions have increased over the last years to tackle the dire situation of eels.
The species is also listed in Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) which requires to ensure that trade is not harmful to the species survival.
Furthermore, the Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) listed the European eel in its appendix II, under which an international mechanism for a more coordinated and comprehensive cooperation for the European eel conservation is being developed. The EU plays an active role in these international processes.
National eel management plans
Under the Eel Regulation, EU countries must implement management plans for the recovery of European eels. These plans include measures to restrict fishing and other human activities that kill European eels, combat predators, other measures related to the aquaculture, as well as restocking activities that may be co-financed under the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF).
EU countries need to take measures that
- make it easier for fish to migrate through the rivers
- allow 40% of adult eels to escape from inland waters back into the sea, where they spawn
- limit professional and recreational fisheries
- restock suitable inland waters with young eel
In addition, EU countries catching glass eels (juvenile eel less than 12 cm long) need to reserve 60% of their catches for restocking within the EU.
To date, the European Commission has adopted all plans submitted by 19 EU countries, plus a joint transboundary plan for the Minho River in Spain and Portugal.
In 2020, the European Commission published the results of the evaluation of the Eel Regulation which concluded that the regulation is fit for purpose; however, more efforts are needed to implement the relevant measures with a greater focus on non-fisheries impacts.
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.