As major sponsors of the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards, we take the highest achievers from the competition away on a fishing themed trip every year. Paschal Tiernan of James Knight of Mayfair decided to take this year’s achievers to visit the wonderful Severn & Wye Smokery in Gloucestershire for two days at the end of September.
Richard Cook, Managing Director & owner of Severn & Wye, not only took us on a tour of the smokery, but also demonstrated the fantastic work that they do in the conservation of eels. As many of you are aware, eels are a highly contentious species – marked as critically endangered by the ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It has been my view, up until this point, that the species should be avoided at all costs, and I have probably advised many of you of this in the past. This view has been based on the fact that the MCS (Marine Conservation Society) have applied a red rating (fish to avoid) to the species. However, as a result of our visit, I have to confess that my viewpoint on how this species should be managed ongoing has changed.
The Life Cycle of the Eel
Mature eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea, 4,000 miles away, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean to spawn every autumn. It is not possible to breed eels in captivity. The migration is mandatory to the survival of the species. It takes nearly two years for the eel larvae to drift back to the UK, at which point in their development they are called glass eels. These glass eels will wait at the mouth of the river in the spring when the large tides assist them in their progression up the river to other rivers, lakes & wetlands where they will mature for up to 20 years – by which time they will then begin the migration back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
However, there a number of factors which are preventing the life cycle described above from happening as it should. For example, a major factor is the increase in man-made structures such as weirs, sluice gates, and clapper gates for flood defences, which act as barriers to migration upstream. There is also a reduction in freshwater habitat, and more pollution, to name but a few.
Severn & Wye are actively involved in the conservation of the species. It is a fact that 99% of glass eels will die in the first 3 months after entering our rivers if nothing is done to assist them in their progression up our rivers to the wetlands in the UK. By catching the glass eels in the Spring that would otherwise be trapped by manmade barriers on the rivers, they are able to transport them to tanks where they are grown on to a size where they have learned to feed and are better able to survive in the wild. This year, 80% of the glass eels caught were later released to lakes, dykes, streams, and wetlands with a massively improved chance of survival. The sad reality is that none of this restocking takes place in the UK, with the exception of this year when a few projects have taken place for the first time. Richard Cook has taken this project to a number of schools (predominantly primary schools) where the children are educated as to the life cycle of the species. The program is known as “Eels in Schools”.
The project involves the installation of a tank with approximately 200 eels (young elvers) in each school. They are as far apart as Yorkshire, Devon, Sussex and London. Instructions are given on how to manage both elvers and equipment. The children are involved with the daily management under the guidance of the teacher. The children look after and feed the glass eels for a period of about 10 to 12 weeks. During this period they learn about the fishery, the environment, and the significance of our actions on both.
The project culminates in the school children releasing the eels into an Environment Agency Approved piece of water – often involving 20 children or more. This year they released close to 250,000 elvers involving over 2000 children who now know and understand the importance of the environment and the eel in our environment.
In spring of 2012, 1,897kg of glass eels were caught in the Severn alone. This year, that amount had increased to 4,021kg. These are positive signs for the conservation of the species.
The Way Forward
In order for this conservation to continue, it is imperative that there is a market for farmed eel that is accredited to the sustainable eel standard. You can read more about this standard on the SEG (Sustainable Eel Group) website: www.sustainableeelgroup.com. Whilst the Marine Conservation Society do not promote farmed eel in any shape or form, it is vital that this conservation is continued, and this can only happen with re-investment. Alongside promotional activity, some of this comes from putting a value on the farmed product for human consumption. It should be noted at this juncture that 2kg of glass eels left in a wild environment, if they indeed survive, will only produce 18kg of mature eel. The same 2kg in a farmed environment will produce over 1,000kg of mature eels for human consumption. As such, there is relatively little resource required to fuel an eel farm.
James Knight of Mayfair is currently exploring ways in which we can support this conservation project in the future, and will keep you updated on our progress. If you have any questions about the use of eels, or if you want to get involved, then please do not hesitate to contact Paschal on Paschal@jkmayfair.co.uk.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the team at Severn & Wye, and Richard Cook in particular, for an enlightening two days at their facility. The fabulous smoked fish products and fly fishing experience were an added bonus!