Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

Incomes can adapt despite eel fishing being reeled in

Alternative options exist for our innovative food processors

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Irish eel fishermen have been left without a source of income since a ban on eel fishing was introduced in January. We can now only wait and see how the populations of this mysterious creature behave, but in the meantime, it appears that the people who depended on catching eels for their livelihoods will have to seek alternative employment.

European eels have one of the most fascinating life cycles on earth. They begin life as leaf-shaped larvae in the Sargasso Sea and then make an amazing trans-Atlantic migration to the freshwater rivers of Europe. There, they will then grow and can often reach one metre in length and live for up to 30 years. During their bizarre life cycle they undergo several changes in body shape, beginning as transparent larvae that can drift easily in ocean currents. Travelling in the Gulf Stream they arrive in coastal waters, a journey that can take three years, during which they slim and become the tiny transparent eels known as glass eels or elvers. They then migrate upstream to freshwater, often climbing waterfalls and rock faces and, during this time, change colour and become brown with yellow bellies. On returning to the sea they become silver, presumably for camouflage, and their eyes enlarge.

Eels have been something of a mystery for thousands of years and, even today, much about their life remains unsolved.

Aristotle carried out the first known research on eels and believed they were born of earth worms and emerged from mud with no fertilisation needed.

Despite further research in the 1800s, it was not until 1904 that it was discovered that they originated in the Sargasso Sea -- but their spawning could not be observed. How they manage the 6,000km journey back to their spawning grounds is still largely unknown. Eels have been eaten by man for centuries and in Europe we consume around 25m kilogrammes each year. This is surpassed by the Japanese who get through around 100m kilogrammes a year. In the mid-1980s numbers of eels dropped dramatically, possibly due to a parasitic infection thought to have originated from eel farms in Asia.

Millions of eels are also killed annually when trying to cross hydro-electric dams and a ban on eel fishing was introduced in Ireland early this year. This has caused major hardship to our eel fishermen. The value of eel exports exceeded €1m, with the ESB alone catching more than €500,000 worth of stock at their dams.

The ban will remain until 2012 when the situation will be reassessed, but in the meantime the people who made their living from this previously abundant source of food will have to find other employment.

One man affected by the ban is John Rogan, from Corry Lane, Rathowen, Co Westmeath. John caught eels in the River Inny for many years and had built up a thriving business selling smoked eel to outlets throughout Ireland.

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He said that the ban has caught Irish fishermen by surprise and he cannot understand why it was introduced by the Irish Government and not by the authorities in Northern Ireland. Eel fishing still carries on in the North, principally in Lough Neagh, where it is worth more than €2m to the local economy.

But John is no longer allowed to supply his customers with this traditional delicacy. He has, however, developed other products and sells many varieties of smoked fish, including trout, salmon and mackerel. When the ban on eel fishing was introduced he looked for alternative products and is now also smoking bacon in a range of flavours.

I have been buying smoked eel and other fish from John for many years.

When properly smoked, fish and meat take on a totally different character. Smoked food is delicious and is rightly ranked among our gourmet products.

John said that some of the produce sold as smoked is in fact dipped in a chemical mix to give it the smoky flavour and colour but is, of course, nothing like the real thing. He has several units where he uses different woods to impart their unique flavour while gently absorbing the smoke from either beech, oak, whiskey oak or apple wood. The timber used for smoking food has to be produced under the strictest rules, and even the saws used in felling the trees can only be lubricated with organic vegetable oil. Standards are high and the end product is superb.

I will miss eating John's smoked eel but then his bacon infused with the smoke of wood chips from whiskey casks is one of the best I have ever tasted. Eel numbers will hopefully increase again, but in the meantime John Rogan can provide us with great home-produced alternatives.

Irish Independent