CITES gets to grips with a slippery problem

Updated on 12 January 2021

For use of the media only;
not an official document.


CITES gets to grips with a slippery problem

Geneva, 13 March 2009 – Today the 174 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will start regulating the international trade in the European eel (Anguilla anguilla).

The European eel is a snake-like fish, which is utilised as a highly valued human delicacy in most European countries. It is widely distributed in coastal areas and freshwater ecosystems in Europe and the Mediterranean basin and breeds in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean. This fish can reach in exceptional cases a length of 1½ m. The eel larvae drift in the sea for one to three years before reaching European and Mediterranean coasts. Young eels are known as ‘glass eels’ or ‘elvers’. After maturing in estuaries or freshwater habitats, they migrate to the Sargasso Sea where they die after breeding. It has not proved possible to breed eels in captivity.

Older eels are caught for their meat, but glass eels are mostly harvested live to be grown to marketable size in aquaculture facilities in Europe and mainly Asia. About half of the eels caught in Europe are exported to China, Japan and the Republic of Korea for this purpose and in recent years this has amounted to over 200 million eels per year.

Unofficial estimates suggest that, in the 1990s, around 30,000 tons of eels were captured every year, with a first-sale value of around EUR 200 million and that, in Europe alone, more than 20,000 people obtained a substantial income from eel fisheries. Since then catches have fallen to around 5,000 to 10,000 tons but prices have risen substantially, creating a strong incentive to continue fishing despite the reduced numbers of eels available.

“Eels are no longer the familiar sight in European and Caribbean waters that they once were”, noted Willem Wijnstekers, Secretary-General of CITES. “Many people derive a substantial living from fishing them, while others are involved in the aquaculture which grows the fish to marketable size. All this is under threat unless fishing for European eels is put on a more sustainable footing”, he added. “CITES cannot afford to fail the European eel.”

Overfishing in combination with habitat loss, pollution, the damming of rivers and climate change affecting ocean currents, have all contributed to the sharp decline in eels populations. The stock of juvenile eels is estimated to have declined by 95-99 % since 1980. However, eels have a naturally high survival rate, so that wild populations might recover if less young eels were caught.

The new CITES measures coming into effect today will help to re-establish a sustainable fishery for the European eel. In future, all exports will have to be accompanied by an export permit, which can only be issued after scientists in the exporting countries have confirmed that levels of trade are not be detrimental to the survival of the species and that the European eel is maintained, throughout its range, at a population level consistent with its role in the ecosystem.

Exporting countries will need to re-evaluate their eel fishery management in order to meet these requirements. Importing countries will play their part by ensuring that all imported eels are accompanied by the required CITES export permits.

Note to journalists

A background document can be viewed here.

For more information, please contact Juan-Carlos Vasquez, CITES media officer, at +41-22-917-8156 or [email protected]


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