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What pushed the humble eel onto the slippery slope?

Friday 25 May 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has reported the rise and fall of many wildlife species, is shocked by the report that the humble Eel is on the extinction danger list along with the Tiger and the Asian Rhino

ALMOST 40 years ago, when I was based in Belfast covering the Ulster Troubles, I got wind of a story which, although serious, took my mind off muck and bullets (well, tear gas and baton rounds) to give me a few days to investigate a strange environmental phenomenon.

At that time, the word "environment" itself was rarely used ("habitat" was just slightly more common) and I was one of the very few national newspaper journalists who took an interest in such matters. But the worrying happenings in Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles, were worth the drive.

Eel under threat
Photo: Environment Agency

Unlike lochs in Scotland (note the different spelling) Neagh is very shallow and is, or was, a highly productive water for fish and, in particular, eels. And local commercial fishermen were reporting the deaths of thousands of fish which coincided with a huge "bloom" of algae. The question was: were the algae eating the fish?

The answer, the scientists I interviewed told me, me was No, the fish were not being eaten but, Yes, the algae were killing them in a roundabout way. Algae was blooming in the trillions because the water was being enriched by hundreds of tons of farm fertiliser draining into the lough from surrounding fields, a process known as eutrification.

But when the algae died, the rotting process involved sucked the oxygen out of the water … and the fish asphyxiated. As far as I can remember, it was the first time that artificial fertilisers had been linked to water pollution and, since then, much has been done - or at least attempted - to reduce this damage to our waterways.

I had more or less forgotten that incident until, this week, I saw a report from WWF, as the World Wildlife Fund now calls itself, listing the ten most endangered species on Earth. They included, as I have read many times before, the tiger, the Asian rhino and the great apes. But what stunned me was the fact that the European eel is in that top (or should I say, bottom) ten.

As a lifelong angler, I have never had much truck with eels. Hooking them is a nightmare, killing and skinning them is the work of experts, and they gorge themselves on salmon and trout spawn, taking the seed corn of species which are themselves at great risk.

I do, however, love to eat them, jellied in the East End of London or smoked, as most of the Lough Neagh eels are, mainly for export to France where they are prized higher than smoked salmon.

Whatever is killing it off needs immediate

But like or dislike, the sudden collapse of a creature like the eel - whose heroic life starts as an egg in the Sargasso sea, meaning that bit tiny elvers have to swim the Atlantic to European waters when just a few inches long - is a matter of the gravest concern.

The WWF blames their decline on over-fishing but I personally doubt that. Admitedly, the French and other Europeans like them as a rare delicacy but, in my travels, I have never seen them consumed in the huge quantities that have all-but wiped out North Sea species like cod or haddock.

I believe there is something more sinister at work here, like eutrification or an as yet unknown pollutant, perhaps somewhere at sea. No-one cares very much about the slippery eel, because it is not a pretty creature and, food-wise, very much an acquired taste. But it is a tough old so-and-so. Whatever is killing it off needs immediate investigation.

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