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Old August 23rd 04, 06:20 AM posted to talk.environment,sci.environment,sci.geo.meteorology,alt.global-warming
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Default A biological mystery: Eel population in Europe is collapsing


http://www.startribune.com/stories/484/4938033.html

A biological mystery: Eel population in Europe is collapsing
Toby Sterling, Associated Press
August 22, 2004 EUROPEEELS0822


AMSTERDAM -- When a poacher with a baseball bat mugged Willem Dekker
for his baby eels, it was further confirmation for the Dutch biologist
that the species is in trouble.

The European Eel, a snakelike fish with a mysterious life cycle, has
managed to survive in rivers and on farms despite overfishing and a
loss of natural habitat, thanks to artificial restocking with "glass
eel" -- tiny eel fry.

But for reasons not entirely clear, the eel population is collapsing.
For the 25,000 eel fishers and countless animals that live off them,
the future is uncertain.

"The eel population fell to 10 percent of its former levels in the
last half century," Dekker said. "Now it's going from 10 percent to
one percent."

As glass eel dwindle, their price has tripled to $325 per pound in the
past three years, inspiring aggressive poachers like the one who
robbed Dekker a year ago of the batch he had caught for research.

Advocacy groups have not lobbied as strongly for the eel as for other
species -- perhaps because the strange, writhing fish is not a
creature one readily falls in love with.

Yet barbecued eel is a delicacy for sushi lovers, especially in Japan,
and eel is eaten in a bewildering variety of ways across the European
continent. It is most popular with the Dutch, who eat it smoked, as do
Germans and Scandinavians. Belgians and Portuguese stew them, the
French cook them with spinach and white wine and the Spanish eat them
as appetizers.

The eel also feed cormorants, herons, otters and other European
wildlife.

Dekker, who has devoted his career to studying eel at the Netherlands'
Institute for Fisheries Research, believes the decline in glass eel is
due in part to over-harvesting. Asian farms are increasingly buying
European glass eel to satisfy the Japanese market. But he said there
also are problems elsewhere in the eel's life cycle, parts of which
remain a mystery.

Eel live in fresh water for 15 to 20 years, then, turning from
yellowish green to silver, swim far out into the Atlantic Ocean and
are believed to spawn somewhere in the vast kelp bed of the Sargasso
Sea.

Eel larvae then apparently ride the ocean currents until they arrive
on European and U.S. shores as glass eel.

Because the American Eel population is also in decline, some
scientists believe the real problem may be changes in ocean currents
due to global warming or a parasite or virus in the breeding zone.

Dekker predicted that the species will survive, but that commercial
fishing soon will be impossible.

"On the basis of the silver eels that we've seen, there's one, two,
maybe three years' time. Then it's over," he said.

After years of debate, the European Union plans action this autumn to
protect the eel, said Ernesto Penas, head of fisheries conservation
and stocks at the E.U.'s Agriculture Department.

Despite flaws in the data, Penas said, the trend is "extremely clear
.... toward collapse in the eel population, and no one is calling that
into question." But deciding what to do has been very difficult, he
said.

A panel of experts recommended a ban on catching the breeding silver
eels, but Penas said that was "politically difficult" because it would
appear to favor Southern European fishers -- glass eels are caught
mostly on the shores of France, Spain and Portugal, while the northern
European industry is focused on adults.

Arjan Heinen of the Dutch Professional Fishers Association said the
best solution would be restrictions on catching breeding adults and a
Europe-wide tax on glass eel to finance restocking programs.


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