WE ARE very fortunate to have eels in our stream. The bank on our side was reconstructed some years ago with massive boulders brought in by crane, and at one point there is a recess below the water line which I think goes in several feet. This is where our eels live. In the five years or so we have been here, I have seen three: one quite large, maybe three feet long, and on another occasion two smaller ones, apparently fighting. Since they are mainly active at night, I was lucky to see them at all.
The life cycle of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is like nothing else. They breed in the Sargasso Sea, a large area of the North Atlantic closer to the US than Europe. It has clockwise circulating currents and is home to the floating sargassum seaweed. This provides cover for the larval eels. After a year or so they head off on the Gulf Stream for Europe and on the way metamorphose into transparent juveniles, known as glass eels. Arriving in Europe, they make their way up estuaries and rivers, travelling at night and sometimes crossing fields, to lakes and wetlands where they settle and grow for up to 20 years. These are our eels. Once fully grown, they return to the sea and go back across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and live out the rest of their lives, which may be as long as 100 years.
The reason we are so lucky to have eels is that they are threatened with extinction (numbers over the last 45 years have dropped by as much as 95 per cent). Which makes what follows very shocking. This month a seafood salesman from Surrey was convicted of smuggling millions of live glass eels to Hong Kong, where they were worth an estimated £53million to be eaten as a delicacy or grown on.
The judge in the case said he had ‘no doubt at all’ that the criminal operation over two years had ‘a significant environmental impact’ on the species.
Yet the salesman was given suspended sentences for evading prohibition on the export of goods and failure to notify movement of animals, plus 240 hours of unpaid work for the community. What a forceful message that sends! Help send a species into oblivion, make a fortune in the process, and you get away with it.
This video about the eel trade is not too distressing.
(I wish to say here that the dietary habits of many in the Far East are disgusting by any standards, as are their primitive beliefs in the medicinal powers of animal parts, threatening many creatures including the pangolin, the rhinoceros, water buffalo, Asian elephant, tiger and hawksbill turtle. Some of these countries – China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand – are at the cutting edge of technology, and others are heading that way. It beats me how they can permit such ignorant and barbaric practices. If this counts as racism or ‘hate speech’, I look forward to my day in court.)
With any luck the trio of eels under our boulders should see us out comfortably. I hope their offspring are as fortunate.