Article by Laura Haydon
It’s one of Northern Ireland’s
best-kept secrets, but it’s under threat. Lough
Neagh is home to the largest commercial wild eel fishery
in Europe, exporting some 650 tonnes of produce a
year to outlets in Billingsgate, Holland and Germany.
Today, the European eel fishing industry is in crisis.
The eel population has dropped, partly because profit-oriented
management of fisheries has led to overfishing and
sale of elvers to the Far East.
Chairman, Lough Neagh Fishermen's Cooperative
Lough Neagh now
has the only remaining commercially viable wild
eel fishery in Europe. It also constitutes one
of the most unusual examples of Christian ministry
on this island: for more than 40 years it’s
been run by a priest, Father Oliver Kennedy,
concerned to safeguard the livelihoods of his
parishioners. As chairman of the Lough Neagh
Fishermen’s Cooperative Society, his ministry
is a very practical one and consists of running
the fishery in the long-term interests of his
When he arrived in 1961, a powerful London
company owned the fishing rights on the Lough
and fishermen had to sell eels to the company
at whatever price it determined. Families who
had fished eels for generations were seeing
their livelihoods evaporate. Father Kennedy,
who had grown up in Andersonstown in Belfast,
knew little about eels, but he soon realised
he would have to become an expert.
In 1965, Father Kennedy founded a cooperative society
and began raising money to buy shares in the London-based
company. It took six years, but by 1971, the cooperative
had accumulated enough shares to buy the company out
and take control of the fishing rights. It was a coup
of 'David and Goliath' proportions and it made the
front page of many local newspapers.
The 1971 newspaper cutting here appears by courtesy
of The Irish News.
On the heels of that extraordinary triumph, Father
Kennedy’s Bishop gave him leave to run the cooperative
as his full-time ministry.
. . .
market for Lough Neagh eels is Billingsgate
in London. Eels have always had a special place
here: in the 17th century, Dutch eel fishermen,
whose boats were moored on the Thames, helped
feed the people of London during the Great Fire
and in exchange were granted a monopoly on eel
trading at Billingsgate.
Until recently, pie and eel shops abounded
and shop window displays of live wriggling eels
were a common sight across London. Nowadays,
they’re few and far between but jellied
eels are still sold from stalls in front of
pubs, especially in the East End.
Mick Jenrick has been selling eels
at Billingsgate Market since the 1960s. 40%
of all the eels pass through the UK market go
through him. He runs his business, Mick’s
Eel Supply, with his brother and he’s
been trading with Father Kennedy for more than
40 years. They sell about 5-7 tonnes a week,
the bulk of which are processed into jelly in
Mick’s own factory.
Mick Jenrick of 'Mick's
Eel Supply' - Billingsgate Market, London.
In the winter, Mick buys in farmed eels from Holland;
from May to October, he switches over to Lough Neagh
eels. But the catches are getting poorer. “At
the moment the fishing's really, really poor and we're
probably getting 150 boxes a week. But if the catches
were really good we'd be taking 150 boxes a day.”
Dave Pearce - Feb '08
Hello I am Dave Pearce, a commercial eel fisherman. I have a few numbers for
you to ponder over:
1 kg of elvers if 100 percent survive
would become 3/4 tone of adult eels 9 (I know 100
percent is not possible acording to the enviorment
agency) 10 tone of elvers a year are caught so 10
x 1000kg=100000kg x 3/4 tone adult eels 3.500,000
tone a year is being taken out of the system.
As for eel farming that's a joke, they buy the elvers
to grow om they cant breed eels they say buy farmed
to save wild eels - they are the eels biggest enemy
Dave Pearce firstname.lastname@example.org if anyone
wishes to contact me feel free.
Philip Watson - Mar '07
It's not clear from your article (except by inference
based on season) how many are autumnal and migratory
silver eels or how many are "yellow" eels,
the resident phase in their life cycle. Also, what
lunacy allows elvers to be caught and exported? That's
robbing the fishery of recruits, and it's a risky
enough journey from the Sargasso Sea to the river
and up to the Lough.
I remember loads of elvers going through the eel
gates at Castleroe near Coleraine in the 1970s and
many were artificially transported upstream to the
Lough to try and help their survival. Is this all
A very worthy topic - good to read of it.
Aidan O'Kane - Mar '07
First salmon now the eels, its sad we have to destroy
mother nature for greed.