EU Commission proposed stopping eel fishing for six months in 2023

The European eel has been critically endangered for decades. The 3-month closure period applied in the EU over the past few years has been deemed insufficient. European Commission has now proposed a doubling of the annual eel fishery closure from three to six months in 2023.

The Commission’s proposal is more steering and far-reaching than its proposals the past few years. It gives Member States less room for interpretation or flexibility as to their choice of the closure period. The closure is to cover fishing at all life stages. It is also to cover both marine waters in the EU and adjacent brackish waters. The closure is to last for six consecutive months, and may extend until 2024.

The intention is to increase protection of the eel, both at the earliest stages of life in European waters and during spawning migration of silver eels. The background is the dire situation of the threatened European eel and the clarified advice for a ban on fishing from scientists at at the International council for exploration of the sea (ICES) last year. This advice was reinforced this year. 


Timing of the closure

The timing of the closure is to be determined by the Member States, but conditions for the closure are also stiffened compared to last year. The closure is to cover the relevant weeks and months of the main migration of eels at the glass eel and silver eel life stages, respectively. It is to cover both the peak migration period and at least two months before and after. A justification is that the peak migration period may vary from year to year.

Member States sharing straits and other transboundary areas are encouraged agree on the appropriate time for the closure, in the appropriate consultation for a. For the Baltic, that means in particular Sweden and Denmark. It is not clear if the “appropriate consultation forum” for the Baltic would be bilateral discussions between Sweden and Denmark, or within Baltfish, where governments for all EU Member States with Baltic Sea coasts are represented. Eels from the whole Baltic region must pass through Swedish and/or Danish waters on their way to spawning migration through the Atlantic.

The Commission has also clarified, and strengthened, requirements on Member States for justification for the choice the closure period. Member States are to determine the weeks and months of the eel migration based on the best scientific information covering the last 10 years, including the peak migration period for every relevant geographical area.


The context

The eel has long been in critical condition. ICES estimates that numbers of new glass eels coming to areas around the North Sea declined dramatically in the early 1980’s. In past years they have been less than one percent of the average during the period 1960-1979. Member States have not supplied data required under EU rules. Since 2001 ICES has recommended that eel catches be “reduced to the lowest possible level”. In 2021 this was clarified to a recommendation that “there should be zero catches in all habitats in 2022”, including catches of glass eels for restocking and aquaculture.

ICES reinforced its message in the advice released in November, 2022. There, they write that "all non-fisheries related anthropogenic mortalities should be zero".

The Commission’s proposal  is the latest instalment in EU measures to protect the eel. 

An Eel Regulation was adapted in 2007, requiring among other things that Member States adopt national eel management plans. As noted above, the regulation has not achieved its main objective.

In 2017 the Commission proposed a ban on eel fishing in the Baltic Sea, citing data that showed that 57% of the silver eels that reached the open sea in the Baltic were caught by commercial and recreational fishers.

Instead, Member States’ agriculture and fisheries ministers decided in the Council that Member States all over the EU would close eel fisheries for a three-month period, to be determined by each Member State.

Last year, the Commission proposal did not reflect the latest ICES advice. The Commission now notes both ICES’ advice from 2021 and ICES’ findings from May, 2022 that no overall progress has been made in the achieving the main objective of the Eel Regulation from 2007.

In its Communication on the state of play of the Common Fisheries Policy in June 2022, the Commission wrote that it is exploring how to follow up on Member States’ progress in implementing their Eel Management Plans and measures under the Eel Regulation.

In an information note to the Council meeting in September 2022 the Commission emphasised that the current 3-month fishing closure is insufficient and that efforts should focus on reducing eel mortality and increasing escapement for spawning migration.  The Commission also argued that in order for the eel to recover, it is necessary to look at issues such as river continuity and nature restoration. The Commission referred to also to other EU actions, such Biodiversity Strategy and the need for implementation of the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

A key and controversial element of the Swedish eel management plan has been restocking with glass eels imported from other countries. One issue that has been hotly debated is eel mortality in hydropower turbines. Some have argued that hydropower is a bigger problem than fisheries. Even if many of the eels killed in hydropower turbines have been restocked, dams can also block migration upstream and reduce potential eel habitat. The Swedish government has initiated an international evaluation of the national eel management. This evaluation is to be published by the end of 2024.

The more detailed Commission proposal is consistent with frustration over the way that some Member States have chosen to time the periods of fisheries closure. For example, the Swedish choice of closure period has been based at least in part on avoiding negative impacts for eel fishers.

The Commission proposal will now be discussed by the Member States, and probably decided at the Council meeting in December. Member States have to start working right away. They are to inform the Commission of the choice of the closure period by the end of January 2023, and at the same time submit supporting documentation justifying the chosen period.

Text: Charles Berkow