2019 may be the year eel slips off the menu

It’s been a wonderful summer but this prolonged spell of dry weather has had a negative effect on our local small commercial salmon fishery on the Severn. Its effects have also been felt by rod and line fishermen, not only on the Severn but the Wye and Usk too. Since the end of June exceptionally low water levels coupled with high water temperatures have meant fish tempted to come in have turned back to shoal in the Bristol Channel until conditions improve. For the Severn salmon netsmen their season finishes today and they will hope for better conditions next year returning as a fishing co-operative in order that the quota system can be shared more equitably between them and also go some way to preserving the future of their heritage fishery for as long as possible.

8th April next year signals the new London T (toxic) Charge on top of the Congestion Charge. This charge 7 days a week 365 days of the year will be £12.50/day for cars, vans and bikes exceeding the new emission guidelines and £100 for lorries coaches and buses. We desperately need vehicle manufacturers to speed up their development of green energy efficient forms of transport that can comply with these restrictions particularly those with chilled delivery requirements.

At 11pm on 29th March local time here in the UK will be the moment the UK officially leaves the EU. Under current EU rules the banning of export of eels outside EU. This will mean anyone purporting to supplying SEG (Sustainable Eel Group) approved eel will have no access to eel to process.

There is no British eel farming activity whatsoever and when we took the decision over 15 years ago not to process any wild eels on ethical grounds. We instead have relied on sourcing sustainable reared eels from the EU in many cases from farms that have been supplied by elvers (glass eels) from the UK’s SEG (Sustainable Eel Group) approved elver fishery based on the River Severn. This historic heritage fishery right on our doorstep has always been missing that final piece of the jigsaw, a local British eel farm to supply processors and wholesalers both here and abroad. Several years ago Severn & Wye purchased Pine End Works, an historic factory site next to Lydney Docks right on the Severn Estuary to finally fulfil that ambition. We have been working with Forest Of Dean District Council officers along with local supportive councillors to seek planning for a multi-million pound state-of-the-art eel farm, being the first commercial eel farm of its kind in the UK. Unfortunately, possible restrictions and even worse quotas on the local (elver) glass eel fishery now put these plans in jeopardy. Any restrictions that put the future viability of the glass eel fishery in doubt would have consequences on us proceeding with our plans.

At a meeting earlier this month DEFRA, on advice from CITIES and the Environment Agency, put forward to a selected few of the eel industry’s stakeholders a proposal to introduce a UK elver catch quota of 3 tonnes, and a ban on sales to the aquaculture industry, but would negotiate a freedom for them to tender for EU restocking projects (as if we can expect the EU to allow us to quote on equal terms).

Brexit, we were led to believe, would herald a new dawn for the UK’s fishing industry. Well apparently not so for roughly 350 elver fishermen of the River Severn. I have received advice that the Environment Agency are reconsidering their stance on the ban on aquaculture sales, but to impose a catch quota of any size on this tiny fishery in comparison to the EU’s fishery is quite simply ridiculous.

Our hand net fishery is dependent on favourable weather and tides and as a consequence catch levels can vary hugely from season to season. From several hundred kilos one year to 14 tonnes in an exceptional year. In France, on the other hand, they trawl and commercially net it is conservatively estimated that even with a quota of 60 tonnes they generally catch over 90 tonnes each year. We have a fishery with full traceability and have committed to supply over 60% annually to restocking projects with the rest going to aquaculture. The French can only account for about 25 tonnes of their catch, the rest (estimated 65 tonnes) is illegally exported, earning criminal gangs millions. This is costing enforcement agencies millions and of course it is highly detrimental to eel recovery plans.

We only have to look at the Severn Estuary’s wild salmon fishery to see the damage that legislation and quotas can do. This history repeating itself.

The future success of the Severn’s elver fishery doesn’t just affect us at Severn & Wye, there is also the famous eel fishery of Loch Neagh in Northern Ireland which depends on elvers from the River Severn to restock the loch every year. That’s the livelihood of another 300 plus fishermen in the loch’s fishing co-operative that could be at risk.

We are only a few weeks away from our annual eel release at Llangorse Lake. We have timed it this year to be on Friday 14th September coinciding with the Abergavenny Food Festival weekend. Freddie Bird from The Lido, Bristol will be cooking up a storm on the BBQ this year and anyone interested in coming down and getting involved in our eel day and showing support for this project will be warmly welcomed. Its always a great fun day.