100 years ago, Sir Herbert Maxwell wrote, in "British Freshwater Fishes" (
1), the following passage:
... the eel is excellent, nutritious food, whereof the supply is in no danger of running short in the British Isles. On the contrary, the resources of our waters in the matter of eels is well-nigh inexhaustible, and it is to be regretted that they are not more generally developed, and that our own people do not exert themselves to secure some of the profit which Dutchmen derive from supplying the English market".
Maxwell's Victorian confidence in the inexhaustibility of Nature's bounty seems quaint in the 21st century, however, while the consumption of wild-caught adult eels is dropping, the trade in glass eels or elvers appears as great as ever. Maxwell again:
Even man deigns to consider elvers a delicacy. Couch, the ichthyologist, was told by a Cornish fisherman that he had seen at Exeter four carts loaded with elvers for sale. They are fried in a form called elver-cakes, presenting, says Mr. Montagu, 'a peculiar appearance from the number of little black eyes that bespangle them' ".
Elver fishing at Northfield Stack, Longney, R. Severn;
© City of Gloucester Museum (6) Global catches of European eel have dropped from a peak of around 20,000 tonnes per year in the late 1960s to just around 5,000 tonnes in 2010 (
2). Conversely, production of farmed eels rose sharply in the 1980s, and has averaged around 80,000 tonnes per year for the last 20 years. While this may appear positive, it should be remembered that eels do not breed in captivity, so every single farmed eel originates as a glass eel taken from the wild, and potentially reduces the wild population. In addition, eel farming has as many potential impacts as other fish farming; parasite proliferation, pollution by waste products and medications, and the use of other wild-caught fish as a source of protein for the eels' feed.
Since the 1980s, the number of glass eels arriving in European waters has plummeted; estimates go from 10-15% to as low as 1% of numbers in the 80s (
3). While overfishing is undoubtedly partly responsible, there are
many other potential causes, including pollution, climate change, disease, floodplain cultivation and the blocking of headwaters by dams and other structures.
Declared catches for eel, all life stages, EU Member states © Environment Agency (15) The Environment Agency are responsible for controlling the level of eel fishing in England and Wales. Among their policies (from 2011 onwards) are to ban eel trawling and the use of nets which specifically target silver eels, and to restrict elvering, geographically and temporally. Their policies are founded on the premise that fishing is not the main cause of decline of eels, and that the data provided by a well-regulated fishery are a valuable addition to the understanding of eels, and so effective control and regulation are preferable to a complete ban.
These policies are based upon a number of observations, including:
Just under 900 fishermen are licensed to take eel in England and Wales.
Many of those will only take a very small number in a season, for their own consumption, and the number of licensees is decreasing.
The total catch per annum is approximately 26 tonnes. This is less than 1% of the total European catch.
By contrast, estimates for eels consumed by cormorants vary between 29 and 43 tonnes per annum.
Existing obstructions in the freshwater stretches of our rivers are estimated to reduce eel colonisation by 40%.
If all waters supported optimum stocks, the total potential yield of eel from UK waters would be in the order of 3,500 tonnes.
Despite the drop in numbers arriving, demand for glass eels in the UK, Europe and Asia remains very high, and in some years considerably exceeds the supply, leading to extremely high prices per kilogram. Partly as a result of this, worldwide demand for the American eel is increasing, and experiments in artificially spawning the native Japanese eel (
Anguilla japonica) have met with some success (
The EU Council Regulation No. 1100/2007, and the Eels (England and Wales) Regulations 2009 which arise from it, aim to counteract the collapse in numbers of glass eels, and among other stipulations, require that by 2013, 60% of all glass eels caught should be made available for the restocking of eel river basins.
For hundreds, probably thousands, of years, Man has used his ingenuity to catch eels. As one might expect, fishing methods for glass eels on their upstream migration, and for yellow or silver eels in their native waters or on their seaward journey, differ considerably.
An elver fisherman carrying his elver fishing equipment
© City of Gloucester Museum (6)
Glass eel fishing (classified as fish with a length below 120mm) in the UK is mostly confined to the rivers Severn, Wye and Parrett on the Bristol Channel, and a few other places such as Morecambe Bay and the south-west coast of Scotland. Historically, some elver fishing was also carried out on the River Tamar in Cornwall. While in France small trawling boats, using wing- or trawl-nets, are used, in the UK only hand-netting is permitted for glass eels.
Elvering is usually carried out at night, on a spring tide, and generally just after the tide has begun to ebb. At this point, the elvers have dropped out of the tidal current and congregate close to the river bank, but occasionally continue to swim upstream, close to the bank. The fisherman stands on the river bank, with his fine-meshed elver net with a handle between 7 and 9 feet in length. The net is held in the water - rather than actively scooping - and the young fish swim into the net. They are then emptied into the fisherman's bucket (
7). As might be expected, the precise shape, size, materials and method of construction of elver nets varies from one area to another, dependent on local river conditions, and available materials.
Unfortunately, but inevitably with a catch as valuable as glass eels, a considerable degree of
poaching also takes place, using
illegal methods and without licences.
Yellow & silver eels
The main fisheries for adult eels (above the legal minimum landing size of 300mm) are in southern and eastern England, within the Humber, Anglian, Thames and South West river basin districts. Methods of capture historically fell in to four broad categories: line fishing, spearing, trapping, and netting. The most commonly-used method of fishing nowadays is with fyke nets (
Long lining using baited hooks takes place in still lake waters, such as Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. A long line may have 600-1200 hooks, baited with earthworm or pieces of fish, attached at intervals of 1 to 2m along the line. Lines are usually set overnight,from late spring to late summer (
A selection of eel spears from around the UK (6)
Spearing eels differs from netting and trapping in that the eels are caught when lying in the mud; it is the only effective method of catching eels during the winter. Spears traditionally were of two types; those with sharp barbed points to impale the fish, and those with flattened tines designed to hold the eel without significantly damaging it. The latter have the advantage that eels could be kept alive and sold fresh, and appear to be by far the most commonly used in the UK. Predictably the design and construction of eel spears varied widely across the UK, and fell broadly into two categories; relatively short spears for use on hard substrates such as sand or shingle, and longer, narrower and less-flattened prongs for use in soft muddy or clay conditions.
Variations on the use of spears, employed in small shallow streams, were tongs, and the 'stitcher' or 'eel crook', consisting of an old scythe with notches cut on its cutting edge and fitted to a long handle, used to flick an eel rapidly up on to the river bank (
Intermediate fishing methods for eels include 'sniggling' or 'bubbing', threading earthworms onto a long length of wool, which is rolled into a ball and lowered into the water. Eels, in theory, take the earthworm bait, and can be lifted out of the water, either because they hang on through greed, or because their teeth become entangled in the wool. Another method employs a sack filled with straw, containing some small fish, crushed shellfish or offal as a bait. A length of drainpipe is tied in to the mouth of the sack, and the whole lowered into a stream or pond. Eels enter through the drainpipe in search of the bait, but cannot excape quickly through the straw when the bag is hauled up again.
A range of eel pots of different designs (6).
Portable eel traps, made of wicker, metal or netting, have been widely used across the UK, and known variously as grigs, kiddles, hives, putcheons, wheels, wills, and no doubt a hundred other names. Although differing greatly in shape, they all work in a similar fashion; the eels enter the trap through a small aperture which is considerably more difficult to return from - either through having to be forced open, through the presence of sharp spikes, or because of the eels' natural tendency to follow surfaces and contours.
Some of these traps were baited, often with shrimp, lamprey, or rabbit. Others were set in a net stretched across the narrowest part of a watercourse - often in the path of the eels' downstream migration in autumn - so that the only way to pass the net was through the entrance of the trap. Although traps made of metal were more durable and easier to make, many fishermen preferred the traditional wicker construction, believing that the eels disliked metal.
As well as catching eels, similar traps have been used to take lampreys, either for bait or for human consumption. Although lampreys are caught while netting for salmon, it was believed that they were damaged in this process, so trap-caught fish were much preferred.
The use of portable eel traps has been recorded since the 14th century, and archaeological evidence exists of their use in the Severn estuary as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. As well as portable eel traps it is likely that eels were also caught (even if not specifically targetted) through the use of larger 'fixed engines', arrays of nets or traps more or less permanently fixed in the intertidal zone (
8), or in fish traps constructed of rocks which relied on fish being stranded by the outgoing tide.
'Lowering the Eel Bucks', from 'Life on the Upper Thames'
by H.R. Robertson, 1875. (13).
'Eel Bucks', by Myles Birket Foster, c. 1890.
A slightly more recent example of a fixed engine was seen in the 'eel bucks' used on the Thames; baskets made of woven willow, with the customary funnel-shaped entrance with willow rods coming to a point, so that eels may enter but not exit. The bucks were mounted on a wooden frame, to allow them to be raised or lowered.
The use of eel bucks mounted on frames like this proved quite a hazard to navigation, so much so that they were specifically outlawed in the Magna Carta -
Omnes kydelli de cetero deponantur penitus de Tamisia, et de Medewaye, et per totam Angliam, nisi per costeram maris
or in more modern English:
All kydells (fish-weirs) for the future shall be removed altogether from Thames and Medway, and throughout all England, except upon the sea shore.
Although some have thought the law was made for the protection of fishing rights (and indeed a later statute was created with that specific purpose, including the line "
also in safeguard of all the fry of fish spawned within the same"), the later revision of the Magna Carta makes its real intention clear:
"Whereas the common passage of boats and ships in the great rivers of England be oftentimes annoyed by the inhancing of gorces, mills, weirs, stanks, stakes, and kydells." (
Despite their outlawing, it appears the use of bucks continued until the 20th century, when eels fell out of favour as part of the poor's staple diet. The islands of Buck Ait and Handbuck Eyot in the Thames are reminders of their presence there.
Until quite recently, fixed automatic eel traps, where the water flows through a grating which intercepts the eels, were still in use in mill races and at the outlet of lakes, in some parts of the country.
Electric fishing - the use of direct or pulsed current in water to attract and then stun fish - has been used for catching eels. Two electrodes are held in the water; normally the cathode is laid on the bottom, and one of the users holds the anode, attached to an insulated pole, with a switch to control the flow of current. Fish entering the electrified zone around the anode are first attracted towards the anode, and, as they get closer, then stunned, at which point they can be retrieved. A careful user will ensure that the current is adjusted to suit the conductivity of the water and the fish being caught, and that the current is switched off before the fish are too heavily affected. Once retrieved, fish are generally placed into a container of oxygenated water where they can quickly recover. Because the magnitude of the effect of electric fishing increases with the potential difference between the head and tail of the fish, long thin fish, such as eels, tend to be more strongly affected than shorter bulkier fish.
A French eel-buck (electrified) (17).
Commercial electric fishing methods can include the simple cathode - anode arrangement, often using a ring-shape anode with a net attached, or can be much larger and more elaborate. For larger water bodies, seine nets up to 600 metres long, with electrodes attached, can be used, towed between a pair of boats and using very powerful generators. Alternatively, wing- or trawl-nets, again electrified, have been employed. These have the advantage that the fish pass through the electrified mouth of the net, and are stunned, falling back to the bag of the net. There, some distance from the electrodes, the voltage gradient is very low, and so the fish quickly recover and are kept in good condition. An electrified version of the eel buck (above) has also been used, in France (
In the northern Thames estuary, trawling for eels has been practised, using a beam trawl with a 15 to 20 foot mouth. Elsewhere a seine-type net, with a heavy ground rope to maintain contact with the bottom, has been used. With the exception of these, netting for eels employs gear with a strong similarity to the portable eel traps described above.
Three basic types of net are used, the 'Coghill', 'wing net', and 'Dutch fyke' or simply 'fyke'; each involves forcing, or luring, the eel through a small aperture from which it cannot easily return - exactly the same principle as the portable and fixed fish traps above.
Of these, the Coghill, originating in Ireland, is the simplest in form; a long tapering bag, open at the upstream end, and held open by a series of frames or hoops. Towards the back of the net is a funnel, through which the eels pass, but cannot return. The net is generally set on the artificial tunnels, or 'plow holes', leading out of a lock, where the entire flow of water is directed through the net (
A 'Coghill' type net (A) and wing net (B & C) (9).
It is not certain whether the Coghill net was ever used in England, however the closely-related wing and fyke nets were, and still are. Wing nets, as the name suggests, have two 'wings', walls of netting spreading out upstream of the mouth of the net to direct the fish in towards it (B, in the diagram above). They are normally set facing up or downstream, in slow-moving waters. They can be set singly in a small stream or river, or in a large array (for instance on the coast or in a large estuary) with nets facing alternately up- and down-stream. Wattle hurdles may take the place of netting for the wings. Most wing nets are less than 20 feet in length, although on the Severn estuary they can be up to 50 feet. At that size, given the strength of the current in the Severn, they have to be anchored extremely firmly.
A fyke net for eels, showing the position of the leader (11)
Although 'fyke' appears to be often-used to describe a wing net, the fyke traditionally has only one wing, or 'leader', originating centrally in the mouth of the net. It is normally set at right angles to the current, with the leader anchored close to the bank and the trap end towards the centre of the river, so that fish moving either up- or down-stream are guided in towards the mouth of the net. Fykes are ineffective in deep or fast-moving waters (
The catching part of wing and fyke nets is essentially the same, a tapered tunnel of net, with two or three funnels to prevent the eels swimming back out. An important feature of both wing and fyke nets is that only the far (catching) end is made of netting fine enough to contain the eels. This is for two reasons, firstly that a slowing or interruption of the current can produce a backwash sufficient to allow some of the catch to escape, and secondly, that the finer the mesh, the greater the resistance offered to the current; if the net were all made of fine mesh, in a strong flow the whole net could be washed away.
A catch of eels in a fyke net from Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey in 1979. © Derek Faulkner, 2012. (12).
1. "British Freshwater Fishes", Sir Herbert Maxwell. Hutchinson & Co., 1904.
2. Wikipedia - European eel
3. UK Glass Eels - Championing a Sustainable Eel Fishery
4. Wikipedia - Eel life history
5. DEFRA - Eel Management Plans for the UK; publ. March 2010. More recent EMPs are available here
6. "Nets and Coracles", J. Geraint Jenkins. David & Charles, 1974. ISBN 0 7153 6546 0
7. UK Glass Eels - Championing a Sustainable Eel Fishery
8. Medieval Fishtraps in the Severn Estuary - S. Godbold & R.C. Turner.
9. An Account of the Fishing Gear of England and Wales - F.M. Davis, 1927. Min. of Ag. and Fisheries, Fishery Investigations, Series II, Sea Fisheries, Vol IX, No. 6.
10. Catching, handling and processing eels. FAO, TORRY RESEARCH STATION, TORRY ADVISORY NOTE No. 37 (Revised).
11. The Complete Angler - site no longer available.
12. Letters From Sheppey - Life, Times and Natural History from the Isle Of Sheppey in Kent; © Derek Faulkner, 2012..
13. Life on the Upper Thames (1875), by Henry Robert Robertson, 1839-1921..
14. EIFAC CONSULTATION ON EEL FISHING GEAR AND TECHNIQUES, HAMBURG, Federal Republic of Germany, 10-17 October 1970.
15. Angling Trust - Environment Agency policy on eel fishing - page no longer available
16. Magna Carta, Clause 33
17. Dr. E. Halsband, FAO: - Fishing for eels by means of electricity
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