Eels by James Prosek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just finished reading “Eels”. This book is on the order of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring about the decline (populations are down about 90% in the last 20 years!) of an important but mysterious global species of fish (yes, eels are fish), and the natural history and cultural significance of eels around the world from New Zealand to New England.

Did you know…

  • eels are one of the few species that spawn in the ocean (nobody still knows exactly where they do it) and then die,
  • the babies work their way back hundreds or thousands of miles to fresh water streams,
  • they may live over 100 years before feeling the urge to spawn and are able to get back down the rivers to the ocean where they evidently rendezvous and start the cycle all over again,
  • eels are able to take in enough oxygen through their skin so they can wriggle out of the water onto land to feed, or to cross over to another body of water.
  • young eels just out of larval stage called glass eels are caught in the ocean near the suspected spawning grounds, like in the Sargasso Sea, and
  • currently glass eels go for about $700/lb.
  • the glass eel catch is mostly sold to eel farms in China that raise them until they are about 18″ long then sell them to Japan, US, Europe either live or frozen.

Here’s a good summary of the situation at the Tiny Green Bubble website:

Which do you enjoy more, eating glass eel or having glass eel exist naturally in the world? If you answered the former, than you are not French. Here’s the short version: European countries have been trying to set up a deal that would allow the dangerously low eel populations to recover. By “dangerously low” we meant that eel population numbers have declined by more than ninety percent in the past twenty years. However, in France, fishermen have threatened to go on strike if the ban is put in place.

The ban is modeled after a voluntary ban that Britain has imposed which entirely bans fishing for mature eels and puts a tight quota on glass eels, which are the tiny, translucent juvenile eels that are born in millions in the Sargasso Sea.

What’s the hold up? There’s a huge demand in China, who is rapidly beginning to have more purchasing power in the world than anybody else, for those glass eels. That’s driven the price up to over a thousand euro per kilo (Yes, this is double conversion math. One kilo is 2.2 pounds. One euro is currently about $1.4. So, fourteen hundred dollars a kilo, or about $700 per pound, more or less). That’s essentially the same price as cheap caviar. Or so we’re told.

Last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species called on trade in European eels to be controlled, and the EU’s Scientific Review Group has recommended a complete ban on exports this winter. What’s the kicker? France is Europe’s largest eel exporter and the land of exotic food and fine wine has refused to sign the ban, resulting in absolutely no quota as eel season kicks off.

Of course, it’s not just the fishermen who are responsible for the unsustainable eel fishing practices. Japanese eel lovers typically eat only indigenous eels, but Chinese and Koreans import literally millions of European glass eels, which they then grow to maturity before eating.

I’m conflicted – reading this book made me want to go out for some Unagi (broiled eel sushi) which I really like, but also not want to contribute to the species decline. Oh well if they can make tofurkey maybe someone will come up with tofeel.

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