NO SMOKED SALMON, THANKS: EEL, YES

 

It wasn't quite as blunt as that headline, but a friend in Paris used to say to an Irish colleague something like this: "If you insist on bringing us presents, I'd honestly prefer eel smoked, to salmon smoked." Eel doesn't have many fans here among the general public, though it is big business. Lough Neagh comes first to mind.

Yet eel is the centre of controversy being conducted in parts of France, where it has long been popular and a lucrative scource of income for many fishermen. Some professional and some amateur anglers feel that the goose that lays the golden eggs is in danger. For the eel, they say, is being overfished in their country at its most vulnerable stage of development: when it is an elver, a tiny translucent thing, a few centimetres long, waiting to go up the rivers, eventually to breed.

Christopher Moriarty, of our own fishery service, wrote a book EELS: a Natural and Unnatural History, published in 1978 by the excellent David and Charles publishers. Christopher tells us that in spring, as river waters warm up somewhat, great numbers of elvers, little eels the size and shape of darning needles, appear at our river mouths. They are, at this stage, translucent (glass eels); and much prized by some gourmets or gluttons. They are easily caught (in Ireland too, with a dip-net, because they tend to swim close to the bank and high in the water). In Ireland, writes Christopher, all elders caught are used for stocking upstream. He does note, however, that on the river Feale, in Kerry, fried elvers used to be eaten.

In the summer these translucent creatures become "yellow eels". The biggest elver fisheries, according to our man, are on the Severn and the Loire in France. In the Severn, 50 tons of these little jellified things are taken and the first choice is for restocking. Anything left over goes as food. In France, one correspondent to Le Chasseur Franca is says, they used to be sold in the market in slabs, boiled. Could this be the jellied eels we read about in parts of England? If there are, as some estimate, between 6,000 and 10,000 of these creatures in a kilo (others are more conservative), what does a haul of four tons in a season, claimed by one professional, mean for the Another professional points out that many small fish are destroyed in the process, including sturgeons, as well as the eels. Not only salmon are having a hard time today.