Chance for ESB to do more as young eel numbers jump

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

On the evening news recently, the headline item was the sacking of Manchester United's manager. What on earth has happened to our sense of perspective?

It seems the affairs of an English soccer club are now considered more important than the multitude of threats facing us such as unrest in Ukraine and changes in the earth's climate.

Presumably the media highlight what they feel their viewers consider of primary importance, but if you live in a large town or city, you become so removed from the countryside and agriculture that it's easy to forget how vital their well-being is to our survival.

Farming and rural affairs used to be headline news. Now it's soccer, gang warfare and sex scandals.

I went fishing the following day and while relaxing on the river bank, I got chatting to another angler. We both remarked on how the health of our rivers and lakes has improved since we all began taking the dangers of pollution seriously.

When discussing the state of the Boyne and its tributaries, my friend remarked on the dramatic increase in eel numbers following decades of decline.

It's estimated that eel arrival numbers in our waters had fallen by 90pc by the 1990s, but no one knew the real cause.

Eel fishing was banned in 1995, but hydropower and water pumping stations continued to kill the scarce survivors.

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This year, however, the news is encouraging. Last month teams of licensed fishermen in Britain caught a staggering 1.2 million baby eels with hand nets in just one night in a bid to boost their chances of survival through relocation.

No one knows quite why, but hundreds of millions of young eels have been arriving in our rivers from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic over recent months.

Eels must swim inland to mature and develop, but our waterways are blocked with weirs, dams and man-made barriers.


Eels netted and transported up-river can then grow and mature to make the return journey. This will in turn sustain the livelihoods of eel fishermen who, since the ban, have also become something of an endangered species.

Eels begin life as flat and transparent larvae which drift in the surface of the sea, feeding on small particles floating in the water.

They then metamorphose into glass eels and later become elvers before finally seeking out their juvenile and adult habitats.

It took naturalists until the 18th century to realise that eels were fish and even Aristotle contended they were "born of earthworms".

When they leave the ocean, freshwater elvers travel upstream and are forced to climb up obstructions, such as weirs, dam walls, and natural waterfalls.

They could manage this when many obstacles were wooden and leaked, but nowadays steel doors and concrete walls are too efficient while hydropower and water pumping stations are killing thousands of tonnes of eels each year.

The ESB have a major role to play here and I am told that far more could be done by them to ease the path of the unfortunate eels that will otherwise be minced if they manage to even reach the turbines.

Following the recent upturn in numbers, the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) plans to restock wetlands habitats.

The group's newsletter claims that "doing practically nothing in terms of moving and assisting elvers upstream, as the ESB and IFI (Inland Fisheries Ireland) are doing, is wasting the opportunity of maximising the huge upturn in glass eels and elver numbers arriving into the Lower Shannon and other Irish rivers.

"This increase in elvers in our rivers may be a temporary cyclical event only and to not have optimised these runs, through sustainable management. threatens the survival of this species," claim the SEG.

Eels have been something of a mystery for thousands of years and, even today, many aspects of their lives remain a puzzle to naturalists.

The Irish authorities' current position on eel fishing is that the ban should not be lifted for another 20 years, but many scientists now argue that any dramatic rise and fall in numbers is part of the natural cycle, not unlike the mast years in beech and oak.

Fishermen are the best guardians of our lakes and rivers and we should now lift the ban and allow licensed eel fishing to resume.

Isn't that a more important news item than the sacking of a British soccer manager!

Indo Farming

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