Russia throws a spanner in the works, a fall in prices is not what the future holds

Tales from the Riverbank returns after a little break of a few months. What’s been going on you may ask. Holiday, writers block, business in far off places - well a little of all those things really and of course the start and finishing of another successful year of our eel restocking programme with just under 50 schools scattered around the country. We conservatively estimate that equates to engaging with about 1,500 children. I can hear Ceri coughing in the background and of course special mention should go to her as she did most of the installations, answered all the emergency call outs and really took ownership of the programme this year. The release days with schools are without doubt the most satisfying. The excitement as each child gets their own box of eels to release, quizzing the children on what they’ve learnt, and of course the chance to taste some sustainably farmed eel comes with shrieks, smiles and lots of fun. Nowhere will this be more so than at our year end celebratory release at Llangorse Lake on Friday 26th September. We have been doing this for several years now and this year we will be releasing over 120,000 eels that UK Glass Eels have been feeding since they were caught as elvers in the spring. It’s an open invitation for anyone to join us on this restocking day. We will have a coach of boys from Monmouth School, staff from the factory, customers and any conservation eel supporters and press that happen to turn up will be most welcome. We will have an assortment of boats to restock various areas of the lake culminating in a lakeside BBQ lunch for all.

That is of course all fantastic news but the reality of the situation is that scientists and conservationists are still split on the continued IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red listing of eel. Peter Woods of UK Glass Eels has reported the conservation body to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) for describing eel as critically endangered. In doing so it categorises European Eel at a higher risk of extinction than giant pandas, blue whales, tigers and mountain gorillas, each of which is considered endangered but one step down from critically endangered. As Peter quite rightly argues IUCN is misleading the public on the true status of eel because of its “conservation agenda”. While recognising that the IUCN is a well-funded and reputable organisation it is one that is not neutral. It has a bias towards conservation and its funding is dependent on a conservation agenda, which is supported by NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund. In truth the European eel is a recovery story with a 4th consecutive yearly increase in elver catch numbers. The Increased catch sizes also mean increases in fish for restocking projects.

What is great to see is the trend to get eel back on the menu but the disappointing truth is that almost all processors and smokers are still continuing to use adult wild eel instead of sustainably farmed eel.

This form of green washing and product mislabelling is not confined just to eel. As reported in The Scotsman last week and Undercurrent News the environmental group Protect Wild Scotland complained to the Competition and Markets Authority about misleading labelling by several leading supermarkets and fish processors. The complaints detail systematic fraud and misleading advertising of farmed salmon marketed in the UK, some of the names involved will raise eyebrows link. There will be an effort from the authorities to clean the industry up but with the dramatic recent ups and downs with prices and pressure on margins some companies will feel the need to bend the rules. Investigations into mislabelling are only just beginning and I’m sure more names will be added to the list.

Unfortunately investigations have not been extended to EU countries where my fear is they would be horrified with what they find. Which brings me nicely on to the situation today of salmon prices.

As a result of the recent Ukraine/Russia airline disaster the fresh salmon market is in turmoil. Trade sanctions imposed on both sides prompted Russia to decide to cease trading in European fresh produce. Fresh salmon being one of the products affected caught importers and exporters on both sides of the fence off their guard, with the immediacy that the sanctions were implemented.

Fortunately this is, in terms of demand, the quietest period in the year, so for the next few weeks we will see a global readjustment of how salmon is purchased and a stabilisation of prices will prevail. The Russians, now desperate for salmon for their processors, have already tapped into the Chilean market and experiments with costly air freighting from Chile will start next week. This means the Chileans have been able to turn round to their US customers and demand a significantly higher price. Uncle Sam of course has turned around and said no thank you, at this price level we can buy salmon from Europe, a far better product but now costing similar to Chilean. The increase in prices that we have experienced over the previous 4 weeks has now disappeared with this short term glut in the marketplace of Scottish and Norwegian salmon. We have however seen quick and positive moves by the Norwegian government to get control of the situation by relaxing bio mass levels in the sea to allow farmers to reduce harvest volumes. This has already halted the decline in prices and we are now seeing prices firming up again with larger fish particularly commanding a premium. The medium to long term situation is that Scotland and Norway have no magic wand; the honest truth is that in Europe there is little if any extra capacity to satisfy the increase in future global demand for farmed salmon. With very few new farm licenses being granted Scotland’s Alex Salmond is doing a fantastic juggling act, on the one hand promoting the salmon farming industry as one of the key ingredients to Scotland’s wealth and prosperity by satisfying new markets in the East and abroad. While on the other hand playing friend to the wild salmon fishing community and the huge tourist income that that provides for rural communities all over Scotland who claim that the blame for the dramatic decline in wild numbers and threat to their industry is the unregulated expansion of the salmon farming industry. He’s definitely a talented juggler.

With little or no extra capacity in the system it’s not surprising that forward contracts for next year are rising and the outlook is definitely for a tight market.

On a lighter note and with my fascination for all things eel, it was sad to learn of the death of the world’s oldest eel. Ale (he had a name) was something of a celebrity in the village of Brantevik in Sweden – he was 155 years old. Apparently it was thrown in the family well by an 8 year old boy in 1859, a common practise in those days as eels ate the flies and other creepy crawlies keeping the house water supply clean. Don’t worry the eel’s partner who is 110 years old lives on and the ancient water filter system is still working.

It is with great sadness we are saying a very fond farewell to our head chef Tania Steytler who has decided that affairs of the heart pull stronger than Severn and Wye. Tania has made a great difference to the food offering since her arrival with her imagination and light touch. We sincerely wish her well. Anyone thinking they have what it takes to step into Tania’s shoes email me your hopes and aspirations.

More news from the river bank sooner than you think.