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Leah Gooding: How I fell in love with eels

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 15:23 UK time, Thursday, 27 October 2011

Guest blog post: on this week's Autumnwatch, guest presenter Leah Gooding investigates the plight of one of our most mysterious and iconic fish, the eel.

Leah Gooding

Growing up I always thought wildlife was either on TV or in the countryside. It just felt out of my reach. I'd watch Sir David Attenborough on television, he'd be somewhere far off discovering a new species and I'd be sitting way too close to the TV gripped and hanging on his every word. Without a doubt He sparked my campaign to get my parents to fill our house with pets.

We had three Staffordshire bull terriers, two gorgeous butter yellow canary birds, a rabbit called Thumper and two tarantulas. Yep, I love creepy crawlies!

eel

The perfect opportunity to learn more about these mysterious creatures

Looking back it was my way of bringing wildlife closer to my concrete jungle that is East London. Every now and then - mostly on Fridays - Mum would treat us to our tea at the eel and pie shop down the road. I remember stepping into this busy world of plates clunking, Cockney banter, windows steaming up, the smell of liquor and... of course, the eels.

Their protruding jaw, massive eyes (which I was convinced were looking at me) and their snake-like bodies meant they were never top of my priority. Anyway I grew up, kept wildlife close to my heart and along the way managed to become a Newsround presenter. I left eels in my childhood... or so I thought.

That was until Autumnwatch got in touch and asked whether I fancied taking on an adventure to find out more about this creature from my childhood. I'll be honest, my knowledge of the European eel wasn't great. I knew they lurked at the bottom of ponds and rivers and ate whatever they could, mostly at night. I'd also heard stories about eel numbers declining.

So it was the perfect opportunity to team up with Autumnwatch to learn more about these mysterious creatures and perhaps get to the bottom of what's happening to them.

Filming kicked off at the very eel and pie shop I visited when I was a kid. I was so excited to go back to my old stomping ground, to the place where I was first introduced to the eel. Not much had changed (no bad thing) - builders in at 11am for pie and mash.

But this time there was a difference. An order of eels were due but they were being flown in from Holland! In the boiling hot kitchen, Peter Hak, whose family have run the shop since 1911, told me that the problem was overfishing.

But I was sure though that overfishing wasn't the only issue. I'd heard other stories of dams blocking their migration paths, and pollution and parasites causing big problems.

filming eels

My first chance to get close to the eel

I also wanted to get to grips with what an eel was, its habits and behaviour. Cue Matt Gollock from London Zoo. His colleagues caught us some eels (which were later released) and placed them temporarily in a massive tank. It was my first chance to get close to the eel. I saw how shy they were, choosing mostly to hide away in the tubes placed in the tank. Occasionally they would showcase their spectacular elongated bodies, as if having a little stretch.

With their bodies a deep, frosted silver and their bellies a smooth off-white colour, these particular eels were close to being ready for salt water. It was then I fell in love with the eel. Something I never thought would happen. Against all odds - as Matt informed me - with danger at every turn after birth these fish battle their way 3,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic to spend their lives in our rivers. How lucky are we to have them?

As if that's not impressive enough, when they mature after 5-20 years they do it all again in reverse, swimming back to the same sea to spawn.

The most surreal moment throughout the whole filming process was when we travelled to Gloucestershire. Businessman Peter Wood invited me to help him release 25,000 elvers back into the wild. We bagged them up and released them into a lake in Wales. Over the next 15 years many of them would mature and eventually make that amazing six-month journey back to their birth place.

One of the big problems when baby eels arrive in the spring is that their journey up stream is blocked by dams. I met Andy Don who has invented eel passes that allow the eels to navigate their way around the dams to continue up river. Again, it just made me realise how much there is stacked against these creatures - man-made constructions, climate change and habitat loss - from birth right through until death.

But these shy fish have so many people on land backing them I'm convinced (and hopeful) the amazing life cycle of the eel will continue.

Thank you Autumnwatch for allowing me to fall in love with a creature I thought was pretty boring. Okay, they're not pretty or cuddly but there's not many creatures that start off life in the Sargasso Sea and end up in places like the Thames. From now on, I'll always think the eel rocks!

You can help too. If you find an eel tag washed ashore on the beach, please do let the eeliad project know. The data contained in these tags is invaluable.

Watch Leah investigate the plight of the eel on Autumnwatch, 8.30pm 28 October on BBC Two.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hello, What is the average lifespan of an eel?

  • Comment number 2.

    are eels present in america? the sargasso is much closer. if so why is it called the european eel? and has it been proved any eels from Britain actually make it to the sargasso?

  • Comment number 3.

    Bit of a chum question but what does eel taste like? It must be good enough if people are getting them shipped over from Holland.

  • Comment number 4.

    Applause to the chap that put 10 grand of eels in the reservoir. But where does he get the Elvers from in the first place? Are these collected from the wild in the UK. Therefore he is exporting our eels all over europe to the detriment of the Uk eel population especially since it was reported that this was the first release in the Uk.

  • Comment number 5.

    Very interesting info about eels, just a pity the guest presenter kept calling them 'ills'; couldn't the producer have had a word in her ear?

  • Comment number 6.

    wonderful to see these amazing creatures. strange to think that we probably know more about dinosaurs than eels! i went to a great talk about them earlier in the year and discovered that they can travel across (wet) land to reach rivers when on migration. also, their digestive system shuts down when they start their migration back to the Sagrasso.

  • Comment number 7.

    We found a tag this summer on the Isle of Skye while on a family holiday, we posted it back and received a print out of all the information it contained from David. Great to see the report tonight about the life cycle of the European Eel, beach combing will never be the same again. keep up the good work!!

  • Comment number 8.

    I thought Leah did a pretty good job covering a broad spectrum of key parties, shame she didnt get round to talk with the National Anguilla Club, we are running our own conservation scheme in the uk aimed at mature European Eel recruitment and habitat enhancement.

  • Comment number 9.

    How long are eels in our waters before they go to sea? and do they all go to sea, or are some known to stay, also what are the growth rates of an eel? is it true it can take 20 years + to reach 2lb in weight, also are their two types of species narrow head and broad head?

  • Comment number 10.

    Where do all Peter Wood's elvers come from? It looks great, but who can provide eggs/baby eels? Would like to know this really is a good project, from start to finish.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Leah, in your piece you noted that “eels get sucked into turbines and killed as they travel downriver”… “there are dams like this across the British Isles, but it’s only here in Ireland that something is being done to help.” (i.e. the trap-and-release program, run by the hydropower industry, to get eels round that particular hydro scheme.) But where hydropower is concerned, the situation on the ground in 2011 is in fact far more positive than this. Well-designed hydropower schemes now minimise any impacts on eels. All new schemes in England and Wales are subject to regulation in this regard under legislation passed in 2010. This involves adding upstream eel passes (as shown in the program) where these are required, and by either adding screens to any new turbines which may harm eels, or by using Archimedean screw turbines which they can swim through safely. These new schemes are therefore not adding to the risks, while regulations may also be used to compel screening to be added retrospectively to unscreened old turbines like those shown on the Shannon. Finally, while fish and river protection within the UK are clearly important, it’s vital to recall the ~90% falloff you mentioned in returning migrants. UK hydropower is not the problem now - the big story behind the decline of the European eel is what happens at sea, namely, overfishing in recent decades.

  • Comment number 12.

    It was a coincindence that we saw our first wild otter at 5pm on Friday, 28th October, eating an eel on the shore of Derwentwater in the Lake District as later that evening you featured the declinning eel population and we wondered if the increase in otters was linked to this? We have 4 photos of the otter, one clearly showing the eel if you'd like us to send it.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thrilled to see so may people so interested in the Eel. Hi, I'm David Bunt, Secretary of the Sustainable Eel Group I hope that we can answer some of the questions above, though to the best of our knowledge, as the eel is still not fully understood.

    For background, the Sustainable Eel Group (www.sustainableeelgroup.com) is dedicated to the European eel's return to abundance. We do this through conservation projects, influencing UK and European govt policy, and encouraging sustainable fishing practices. Our group consists of scientists, conservationists, eel fishermen and government advisors - all dedicated to the future of the European eel.

    Ryan, the average lifespan is: 2 years drifting from the Sargasso sea across the Atlantic as a larva ("leptocephalus"), then 5 - 20 years growing in rivers or lakes, then probably 6 - 8 months migrating back across the Atlantic to spawn. Total: anything from 7 - 23 years!

    Unarmadillo, yes there are eels in America, but they are a different species, suggesting they spawn in a different place in the ocean. It hasn't been proved definitively yet that European eels make it back to the Sargasso Sea, but tagging studies by the Eeliad project (www.eeliad.com) have so far shown them heading very far in that direction, so it seems very likely.

    Dick Trolley, eel is quite a solid and meaty fish. Smoked eel tastes somewhat like smoked trout; jellied eels have a good solid texture and if you're not keen on the jelly it can be easily wiped off.

    Tony Eason and Cornish Enthusiast, UK Glass Eels get their fish from glass eel fisheries in the Severn Estuary and the west coast of France. Such West coast Europe rivers receive the gulf streamladen with glass eels first, and many more glass eels enter the estuaries there than the rivers could sustain. So the huge majority would die naturally. By catching the surplus and growing them a little, (1) their natural survival is improved and (2) they can be stocked to rivers and lakes where there are few eels at the moment - eg. because of the dams and sluices you saw on the programme. The lake you saw them stocking was a good example of a lake with few eels at the moment. So, overall, this practice is believed to benefit the European eel stocks.
    The glass eel fisheries in England and Wales are well regulated by the Environment Agency, to make sure they don't take too many glass eels. Also, the Sustainable Eel Group and the World Wildlife Fund (France) have developed Standards and Good Practice that is encouraging more sustainable and responsible eel fishing.

    Devon Eels - great to hear about your conservation project - would love to know more?

    Sharon, eels stay for 5 - 20 years in estuaries, rivers and lakes before migrating to the Sargasso sea. Growth rate is variable - they can reach up to 5kg in 20 years, though the norm is 0.5 -1kg after 5 years and 1 - 2kg after about 10 years. I'm not aware of a narrow and broad head species - it is possible that these are differences between the male and female?

    Adrian, I agree that new hydropower schemes in the UK are now better designed to kill much fewer downstream migrating eels, and require passes to help those going upriver. However, there is a legacy of many hydropower schemes across the UK, especially in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and on the continent. Studies in Scandanavia have shown that a succession of hydropower schemes on one river has caused 99% of silver eels to be killed. Hopefully the European Eel Regulation will force operators to provide better screening in future. I agree that over-fishing has been a problem in recent decades, but this has now been much reduced and the main issue is probably safe access to and from available freshwater habitat.

    Chris Hylton, Otters are a wonderful animal. Their increase is a reflection of the improvement in quality in our rivers in the UK. Whilst they do eat eels, we don't believe they are responsible for the eels decline. We want healthy eel stocks to help feed a healthy water life. That includes Otters and we wouldn't begrudge them eating a few eels!
    Would love to see your photos.

    Happy to be corrected where eel biologists have better information!

  • Comment number 14.

    Firstly wouldnt it be better if commercial exploitation of the species was stopped until stocks/recruitment improves?
    How can a species be sustainable if ALL stages of its lifecycle are exploited, the species cannot be reared in captivity??
    How many eels/elvers are taken from the Severn for commercial gain?
    How many commercial fishermen sit on the SEG?

    Recently many programmes aired on TV depict the eel as great to eat with the emphasis on this and yet very little is said about the decline and in particular overfishing. If we care about the species and want to halt the decline why do the SEG promote it as good to eat? At the end of the day it is an endangered species and should be treated like one. A recent programme i saw showed children being introduced to eel at a barbecue/eel day, it was also stated the some eels come from sustainable sources from farms....this is misleading as a whole.

    I do not believe that the main issue is access ( at the moment ) though this will probably change once all these proposed Hydro schemes come into effect. The main issue is and will always be greed.

 

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