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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 3



Map showing the Sargasso Sea
The approximate location and size of
the Sargasso Sea

European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean. Their young – known as elvers, or glass eels because they’re transparent, are brought to Europe’s river mouths by the Gulf Stream.

If the elvers are left to grow to maturity they become brown eels. When they are ready to spawn, they turn silver and migrate in autumn back down the rivers by the dark phase of the moon and return to the Sargasso Sea.



Around 20 years ago, there was a dramatic and unexplained drop in the numbers of elvers arrriving in estuaries across Europe. In 1983 Lough Neagh saw the annual recruitment of elvers fall from 8 million to just 726,000 - just 10% of what it ought to be.

Graph showing the number of  elvers per year over the past 40+ years

Since then there has been an improvement, but it has never recovered to its original level. To remedy the situation, the co-operative has bought in about 75 million elvers from the Severn estuary at a cost of about £1.5 million. It's used the profits from the catch of silver eels, caught in traps on the Bann in autumn, as they migrate to the sea to breed. But with catches dwindling, the co-operative is less able to afford this so it's asked for a government grant. So far, it's been refused.

Biologists believe the drastic drop in the eel population is due to a range of factors, including pesticides and fertilisers leaching into rivers and lakes, the installation of hydro-electric dams on rivers across Europe, and a change in the ocean currents bringing the eels back from the Sargasso Sea to Europe. European Union biologists now regard the eel as an endangered species. While experts don't think the eel will die out, they are predicting the end of eel fishing as a commercial venture, and of the culinary culture which has grown up around the eel in Holland, Germany and beyond.

Listen: Robert Rosell, a fisheries scientist working for the Agrifood and BioSciences Institute in Belfast on the decline in the European eel population



. . .


Archaeologists believe that commercial eel fishing on Lough Neagh goes back to the Bronze Age: Skeletal remains of eels have been uncovered when excavating settlements dating back 3-4,000 years. Nowadays, some 150 fishing families live around the shore of the lough. Fishermen either fish using a draft net which is set out in a half-moon shape and sinks to the bottom before being winched back up again; or they use a long line. Those who choose this method spend hours each day attaching bait to the 1,200 hooks which are strung along the line.

Early morning start - 4am
A typical fishing day starts at around 4am, returning to shore at about 10am.

The life of an eel fishermen is harsh: throughout the summer they go out at three or four in the morning and fish till around 10am. Then they take their catch to the co-operative to be graded. There's time for a couple of hours' sleep before they're out again at 4pm, and they'd finally come ashore at 9.30pm. The fishing season usually lasts from May to October; in the winter, the fishermen take jobs labouring or driving taxis.

In the olden days, eel fishermen were extremely superstitious: they believed women, especially red-headed women, brought bad luck. Women were strictly forbidden from setting foot in the fishing boats. Today, that's changed. "But there are still some who'd turn around and come home again if they saw a red-headed woman as they were going down to the shore," explained one fisherman.

Nowadays, fishermen's sons are turning away from a trade which is hard with scant financial reward. They're going to university or learning more lucrative trades and becoming plumbers, electricians or plasterers.

If the European Union imposes stringent quotas on the eel catch across Europe, it will spell the end for the Lough Neagh fishermen. Biologists are pressing for Lough Neagh to be exempted from any such legislation because in contrast to fisheries in other parts of Europe, its stewardship of the fishery has been responsible and far-sighted. But it's thought that today's fishermen could well be the last in a line of eel fishermen going back to 2,000 BC.


Listen: Lough Neagh fisherman Eugene Hagan, talking about methods of fishing, poor catches and how eel fishing is dying out.




You can listen to the full 30 minute documentary "Casting the Net" here..



Laura Haydon is a linguist turned radio and print journalist. Her radio career began in 1994 as a trilingual journalist with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. She has also worked for Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, NPR,, BBC World Service, Radio 4 and The Guardian newspaper. She has also become a familiar voice on BBC Radio Ulster, as a news reporter. Laura has made several radio documentaries for the BBC and Radio Netherlands. She now produces features for BBC Radio Ulster's award-winning Sunday Sequence programme, and for Radio 4's You and Yours. She holds a BA in Linguistics from the University of York and an MA in Medieval Studies from Birkbeck College, London.


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