Eels could be slipping away from city’s river

ELY S name means the Isle of Eels, which is translated from the Anglo Saxon word Eilig and came from the eels which swam in the waters surrounding this once isolated island in the fens. But now their numbers are falling and there are fears that they could

ELY'S name means the Isle of Eels, which is translated from the Anglo Saxon word Eilig and came from the eels which swam in the waters surrounding this once isolated island in the fens.

But now their numbers are falling and there are fears that they could even become extinct.

In fact, it is thought that in the last 20 years eel populations throughout Europe have dropped by up to 95 per cent.

The situation has become so bad that the European Union is considering a move to have the trade in eels restricted under the Washington Convention that protects endangered species in the world.

This is a far cry from the time of the Domesday survey in 1082 which recorded that 52,000 eels were caught in the River Ouse in just one year.

Later documents record how many thousands of eels were supplied to the monarch and wealthy customers in London and elsewhere.

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They were so abundant in the waters around Ely that monks would use them as currency to pay their rent and medieval villages were expected to catch around 80,000 a year to pay their taxes.

Peter Carter's family have been fishing for eels in the waterways around Ely for the last 200 years.

Twenty years ago he would have expected a 50lbs catch a night but now would be happy if he got that in a month.

"I still go out every day and if I get a good catch I am chuffed to bits," said Peter, from Outwell, "but it's nothing like it was. I keep fishing to keep the family tradition alive."

Peter still fishes with the traditional willow traps, called hives, instead of nets. They catch less eels but are more environmentally friendly.

He fishes along 300 yards of the river at Well Creek in Outwell and is not aware of any other eel fishermen along the River Ouse's 2,000 miles of waterway.

"I don't think we will see eels disappear altogether," said Peter. "But the prices have gone up. Billingsgate Market charges between £7 and £9 a kilo now compared to around £5 a kilo seven or eight years ago."

Eel has become a delicacy in London restaurants where young diners are developing a taste for the fish smoked, jelled and in pies.

Diners also come from across the country and around the world to sample traditional eel pie and smoked eels at Ely's Old Fire Engine House.

The fish is a regular on the menu but staff are finding it more and more difficult to get supplies.

Over a two week period recently they were forced to take it off the menu and now, for the first time, keep supplies frozen to meet demand.

Manager Terri Baker said: "We normally get 10lbs every two weeks. But we have had problems getting it. It would usually be on the menu every day but people have been disappointed because we haven't been able to serve it."

Experts believe European exports, mostly of juvenile eel, elvers, caught off the coasts of France and Spain, are the root of the problem.

They claim by trapping the eels early the fishermen restrict the numbers swimming into UK rivers where they mature for around six years before returning to their spawning grounds south of Bermuda.

As the eel breeds only once in its lifetime, this practice has the potential to severely deplete its numbers.

The desire by the Japanese to get their hands on this delicacy is behind the fall in population, they fear.

From France and Spain the young eels are dispatched to China for fattening. But many contract disease which is also wiping out their numbers.

Once ready to be sold, up to 70 per cent or 100,000 tons a year are sent to Japan where there is a tradition of eating broiled eel during the hot and humid summer as the dish is believed to induce energy.

The Japanese used to be able to catch their own but coastal destruction has driven numbers down and they have turned to other countries to meet the demand.

Ely's eel catcher, Sid Merry, believes the city's eel population declined when changes were made to the river's sluice gates, making it more difficult for the fish to swim through.

He said: "They used to bring a line of up to 14 barges through at a time at Denver sluice and the eels had a chance to get through. That's changed now and we are getting less and less through all the time.

"If we want the eels to come back we have got to stop taking the elvers. The last time I saw them here was in 1976.

"I used to catch around 100lbs a week but now I hardly get enough to keep myself. I used to sell them to London but my contact packed up two years ago. Now I fish for a hobby."

Now the Environment Agency is implementing an eel management plan in the hope that eel numbers will recover and increase.

Nigel Tomlinson, fisheries principal officer, said: "Eels have a fascinating and unique life-cycle in which our rivers in the East of England play an important role. Without them there would be a serious impact on river ecology. They are also an important source of food for species such as the bittern and otter."

Structures will be put in place in the rivers to help eels get past weirs and other obstructions and special traps will be installed around the region to check how many eels are migrating upstream.

"We are at a point where eels could become extinct, which is why we're doing this work now to stop that happening," added Mr Tomlinson.