Q: What’s the current caught legal limit for a wild sea bass?
A: 36 cm or, for those of you like me that deal in old money, just over 14 inches.
Now with a tail and head off that just about sits comfortably on a large 12 inch dinner plate. So that’s quite a good indicator, anything with head and tail on appearing on your plate will be a farmed fish, no matter what it says on the menu.
All that’s about to change, in fact European fisheries ministers are expected next month to increase the minimum catch size to 42 cm (16 1/2 inches) plus a total catch weight limit per month depending on size of vessel. That means whole wild sea bass will suddenly join the ranks of sharing restaurant dishes for two.
In fact figures suggest that unless drastic measures are taken we will see a wild sea bass fishery collapse similar to that which destroyed the Newfoundland cod industry. The Canadian government in 1992 implemented a cod fishing ban of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks resulting in 35,000 people losing their jobs. The quantity of sea bass at breeding age has more than halved since 2010 from 16,000 tonnes to less than 7,000 tonnes and is close to a point where a total fishing ban would be the only prospect for a recovery. The reason for the catch size change is that even at 36 cm these fish still haven’t reached maturity and spawned and some campaigners such as the Angling Trust believe 42 cm is just the first step towards a minimum of 48 cm which would ensure that almost all the fish had spawned.
It’s been another successful year with our Eels in Schools project, involving children feeding and restocking British waters with sustainably caught British fish. With elver numbers down on last year we took the decision to scale back the project slightly and confine it largely to schools within a 20 mile radius of the smokery. We will of course be doing our annual year end celebration release at Llangorse Lake in October but I thought it worth mentioning some of the good, bad and ugly that the season has thrown at us.
There is a small body of opinion particularly those that support the IUCN red listing of eel that restocking is ineffective. So it was really encouraging when earlier this year leading Swedish eel scientists Willem Dekker and Håkan Wickström published a report re-evaluating the global priorities for eel recovery. Analysis of 75 years of data from hydroelectric power companies, marine authorities and other research institutes of Sweden. They were able to conclude that the hydroelectric power turbines on inland waterways in Sweden were the largest cause of eel mortality. Today 90% of Sweden’s adult eel population is the result of elvers restocked from French and English fisheries. Sweden has a long history of restocking financed by the power companies. Restocking is concentrated in westward flowing rivers and the open west coast of Sweden. The research into the navigation patterns completed by Håkan Westerberg and Niklas Sjöberg, prove that the restocked eels leaving Sweden use the same migratory paths to the Atlantic as those eels with a completely natural recruitment background. They are therefore likely to have the same chances of completing the return migration to the Sargasso Sea. Willem Dekker concludes that without restocking there would hardly be any inland stock left in Sweden. We shall be continuing with our own small project of annual restocking of Llangorse Lake in Wales, and hopefully in the next few years will be able to collect data to confirm a migratory escapement to prove our efforts have been justified also.
After five years of recovering elver numbers it was perhaps disappointing that this year’s season was down on last year’s bumper catches. What was interesting though was the number of good sightings in rivers around the country after the elver season had ended in May, and in quantities and places not seen for many years, so not all bad news.
We have taken the painful steps not to renew our membership of the Sustainable Eel Group. Though well intentioned and with numerous campaign victories to their credit, the enthusiasm to gain membership and create links with processors that can produce a product from sustainably farmed eel, has resulted in the opportunity to use the ‘Standard’ to ‘green wash’ businesses. Anyone processing adult wild eel is, in our opinion, abusing the standard and until there is an incentive to abandon the still widespread practice of processing wild eel, and also an effective management in place to police the ‘Standard’, the validity of the product will always be compromised.
For several seasons the French elver fishery has made numerous attempts to have its catch limit of 30 tonnes increased, but with a ban on exports outside the EU and only sales of half that amount being achieved within the EU this demand seemed a bit of a mystery. That is until this week when ‘Traffic’ a conservation publication issued a report in Tokyo detailing and analysing publically available data on eel production, trade and consumption in East Asia. China was responsible for 85% of the world’s production of eel in 2013. Historically eel farming and trade in China involved their Japanese eel (Anguilla Japonica) but as they became scarce in the 1990s they started importing (Anguilla Anguilla) elvers from Europe to farm. Concerns in Europe over the impact of international trade in our European species led to regulation in trading and a subsequent total ban in exports outside the EU in 2010. China then had to shift its buying attention for juveniles to farm to Japan, South East Asia and the Americas. Records analysed of live eel fry imports into China surprisingly have no corresponding records in exporter data but indicate large scale use of illegally sourced elvers from Europe. “Could these be French elvers?” I hear you say. In the words of Francis Urquhart in the British TV drama series House of Cards “Well, you might very well think that but, of course, I couldn't possibly comment.”
More news soon.