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16 October 2014
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Casting the Net

Lough Neagh is home to the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe, exporting 650 tonnes a year to Billingsgate, Holland & Germany - but it's under threat...


Casting the Net - page 2



Displaying entrepreneurial skills unexpected in a man of the cloth, Father Kennedy set to work expanding the market for his eels. Smoked eels are eaten by the tonne as a delicacy in Holland, where they’re big business. Hundreds of people are employed gutting, smoking and selling eels. Once, Holland had its own wild eel fishery, the Eiselmeer. In contrast to Lough Neagh, fishing in the Eiselmeer went unregulated and fishermen didn't restock the lake with elvers. So when European eel stocks crashed, fishing there practically vanished overnight. Father Kennedy was quick to exploit the new opening. "Lough Neagh eels are accepted in Holland as having the best fat content for smoking so that the Dutch will buy Lough Neagh eels in preference to anything else," he explains. "The operation is such that eels that are caught on the lough this morning are packed, sent out by air, and will be in Holland by 10.30pm. They'll be smoked overnight and be on sale in Holland as smoked eels the next day. It is a fast turnaround operation.”


Smoking eels
A typical Dutch smokery burns Willow or Poplar wood - the same wood used to make clogs - in a smoking cupboard. The eels are impaled on a metal shaft to keep them straight, and hung above the glowing embers until they colour and cook through - a process which takes about two and a half hours.


Hein Dil
Hein Dil, eel processor, Akersloot.

Hein Dil's family firm in the Dutch village of Akersloot has been processing and distributing eels for 100 years. His family has been trading with Father Kennedy since the early 1970s. Several times a week, he takes delivery of crates of Lough Neagh eels which his firm processes and then distributes to villages all over Holland and beyond. Though they've been out of the water for 24 hours, they're still alive and wriggling. "The eel is breathing 70% through its skin, so an eel can survive for a long time without water - it just has to be moist." Here the eels are cleaned and gutted, and some are smoked.

Smoked Irish eels are in big demand in the summer months at fairs across southern Holland where they're sold in huge quantities. But recently the poor catch on Lough Neagh has been causing anxiety for Hein Dil's clients. In June 2005 they were getting 75 cartons a day. In June 2006 it was down to just 24. The scarcity - and the quality - have pushed up the price: "Father Kennedy gets the highest price ever paid for eels. It's the Rolls Royce of the eel, so with the Rolls Royce they say after two years you forget what you paid for it. It's the same with eels: when you've eaten a smoked Irish eel then one hour later you forget what it cost but you are happy that you ate it," explains Hein Dil.


Listen: Hein Dil talking about the process of smoking eels


Lake at Akersloot
The lake at Akersloot, where small quantities of eels are still caught, sits next to the eel factory .


. . .


Harderwijk is a village on the edge of the Eiselmeer where eels have been smoked and sold for generations. It's a popular holiday resort for the Dutch who come here from miles around. Sitting down with a plate of eels and a glass of beer is a traditional pastime. Many of Hein Dil's clients have their stalls and smokeries here. Now that the Eiselmeer eel fishery is in crisis, Lough Neagh eels have become essential to keep local businesses going. Traders here do sell farmed eels, but their quality is significantly lower.

John Kok's family have been in the eels trade for generations. His business, close to the water's edge, used to be a smokery - the chimney is still in place - but nowadays it houses a cafe and eel stall.

John Kok's grandfather started trading with Father Kennedy in the early 70s, around the time the co-operative started. "Back then, the Lough Neagh fishermen were very very poor and he helped them to get a living. It's very hard work in those small boats with wind and weather," he explains. "The best thing Father did in the '80s and '90s was to buy glass eels and put them into Lough Neagh. Here in Holland for 10-15 years, they put OUT the glass eels and the fishermen here made their own grave - they took all the young eels out and sold them to eel farms, while Father was doing the reverse. That's why Lough Neagh is the place where you get the best catch."

But the drastic decline in the eel population means a new crisis is looming for the Lough Neagh eel fishery.

John Kok
John Kok at the counter of his eel stall in Harderwijk.



Listen: John Kok showing our reporter, Laura Haydon, how to eat a smoked eel, and explaining the culinary difference between farmed and wild eels




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