Marine ecologist Henrik Svedäng: "The eel seems to be falling victim to a culture war"

Sweden opposes the European Commission's proposal for further restrictions on fishing for the endangered eel, arguing that Swedish eel fishing is a cultural heritage. "The endangered eel is being reduced to a prop in a sentimental tableau about a soon-to-be-defunct eel fishery," says fish researcher Henrik Svedäng at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.

Illustration: De Agostini Picture Library /Britannica Image Quest

As the UN Conference on Biodiversity gets underway in Montreal, EU fisheries ministers are meeting today and tomorrow to decide on next year's TACs (total allowable catch) for the Atlantic species - and on fishing regulations for the threatened eel. 

The European eel is listed as critically endangered, and in recent years eel fishing in EU countries has been closed for three months a year as a way of protecting the species. However, several countries have timed the closure to the period when it least affects the fisheries, thus providing very limited protection for the eel. Since 1999, when scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) first recommended the fishing mortality to be “reduced to the lowest possible levels”, at least 80,000 tonnes of eel have been fished in European waters.

Ahead of this year's ministerial meeting, the European Commission is proposing to extend the fishing ban to six months, something the Swedish government is critical of.

“The proposal on the table is worrying. Swedish eel fishing is a cultural heritage. We need to ensure that this eel fishing culture and traditions do not disappear", Minister for Rural Affairs Peter Kullgren says in a press release.

In an opinion piece in Dagens ETC, Baltic Sea Centre fish researcher Henrik Svedäng describes how the endangered eel is now falling victim to a culture war, where it is reduced to a prop in a sentimental tableau about a soon-to-be-defunct eel fishery.

Henrik Svedäng, Associate Professor at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.

“We may take an interest in and love the eel never so much, but it has no intrinsic value if at the same time we, if not completely eradicate the species, at least crush the population for centuries to come”, he writes. “Let us hope that Swedish society will soon gain enough self-awareness to realise that it is not primarily eel fishing but the eel itself that needs to be protected – because without eels there is no eel culture.”

Since 2007, the EU has required Member States to draw up so-called Eel Management Plans to protect eels. The Swedish plan involves the release of glass eel, as compensation for the fishing that is still allowed. The Baltic Sea Centre has repeatedly criticised these releases, as it is highly doubtful whether eels will be able to navigate properly in European coastal waters if their natural migration has been disrupted. The release of eel fry upstream of hydropower plants can also lead to eels bound for the ocean, swimming downstream and becoming minced by the water turbines.

At a seminar in Almedalen this summer, Mats Svensson, Head of Department at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, announced that state support for stocking (i.e. translocating glass eels from France to Swedish waters) would cease. However, the latest information provided to the Baltic Sea Centre is that no formal decision on the issue has yet been taken and that it is still being prepared internally.


Further reading

Debate article in Dagens ETC (in Swedish): Ska ålen bli ett kärleksoffer i kulturkriget?

Web article (in Sedish): Besked i Almedalen: HaV upphör med ålutsättningar

Policy brief: Stop all fishing and restocking of European eel

Video: Eel fishing continues – despite scientists recommendations

Policy brief: Fishing ban and more knowledge required to save the European eel