Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.
By Peter Coates
Unlike the Atlantic salmon, the snake-like European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is widely perceived as devoid of charisma. An epic reproductive journey is integral to the salmon’s appeal. But an equally spectacular migration, if in reverse, defines the European eel. The sea-dwelling salmon returns to its freshwater origins. The freshwater-inhabiting eel goes back to its oceanic birthplace. Natural distribution represents another key point of similarity and difference. The salmon spans the North Atlantic, its European breeding grounds confined to more northerly freshwaters. The European eel, with its broader temperature tolerance, populates a wider latitude. Its habitat ranges from southern Iceland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the southern Mediterranean – despite the name, North Africa’s rivers and lagoons contain this eel species – and, on the Atlantic coast, as far down as the Canaries. From west to east, they are distributed from the Azores to Georgia.
The eel’s Europeanness is most vividly demonstrated by its genes. Whereas the salmon displays high genetic diversity and reproductively discrete local populations, European eels all belong to the same breeding population. This singular, panmictic identity is rooted in a shared birthplace: the West Central Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea is a melting pot where every eel of the opposite sex is a potential breeding partner. And the place the next generation calls home could be anywhere within the species’ European range. Lacking the salmon’s homing instinct, the offspring of eel parents that spent their adult lives in Norwegian and Tunisian waterbodies respectively might settle in Wales. Alternatively, this progeny could end up in Portuguese freshwaters, or wherever the currents carry the tiny larvae (leptocephali) during their up-to-three-year odyssey. The European eel is the only truly pan-European fish: a paragon of cosmopolitanism I call ‘Eurofisch’.
On reaching western Europe, leptocephali metamorphose into glass eels. Shoals of these transparent mini-eels – also known as elvers in the UK – start entering southern Europe’s estuaries in December. But in 2012, fisheries scientists reported that ‘recruitment’ had fallen by up to 95 per cent since 1970. An Extinction Rebellion event in Yeovil, Somerset, in the summer of 2019, underscored the species’ critically endangered status. Protestors dressed as eels participated in a ‘drown in’ and a ‘European eel’ addressed South Somerset District Council.
I’ve recently examined the reasons for this drastic decline; tracked the emergence of concern; considered the remedies; looked at trafficking in glass eels for East Asia’s ‘grow-out’ farms that a Plymouth University project has characterized as an ‘unnatural migration’; and reflected on the prospects of eel appeal spreading. Mobilising popular support for eels is more difficult than drumming up enthusiasm for mammals, either terrestrial and marine (for example, ‘T-shirt’ animals such as pandas, polar bears, whales and dolphins). Few who have seen the 1979 movie version of Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum (1959), will forget the stomach-churning scene on the Baltic beach near Danzig (Gdansk) where a fisherman hauls in a horse’s head writhing with eels that he pulls from ears, nostrils and throat.
What I’d like to convey here is the richness of Europe’s eel heritage and how Eurofisch illuminates what it means to be European. The silver eel (the final, Sargasso-ready life stage) has the highest calorific value of any European fish. A venerable and varied culture of consumption unites Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Ireland to Italy. Since early Christianity, roast eel has been the dish customarily served at midnight on Christmas Eve in Rome and Naples. The epicentre of Italian eel gastronomy, though, is Comacchio. Since the 1300s, this town in the Po Delta has hosted a silver eel fishery based on lagoons stocked with glass eels entering from the Adriatic. Eels are skewered and roasted, marinated in barrels, then canned. La Donna del Fiume (1955) starred Sophia Loren as an impossibly glamorous worker in a Comacchio cannery that’s now a museum.
In the early 1900s, glass eels were swept up hyper-tidal estuaries such as the Severn, Loire, Gironde, Minho and Tagus in tremendous quantities: surpluses were fed to pigs, fertilised vegetable plots and made into glue. In France, glass eels were boiled and served cold (‘spaghetti with eyes’). Meanwhile, in Severn estuary villages, super-abundant elvers were fried in butter or bacon fat, scrambled with eggs, or boiled and pressed into gelatinous, fried cakes. In Victorian London’s East End, whose labouring population could not afford salmon or meat, itinerant vendors of stewed and jellied eel and the ‘eel and pie’ shop were odoriferous fixtures of the cityscape. Dutch traders were supplying London by 1400 and in the late 1600s schuyts – ships fitted with wells for live export – established a mooring near Billingsgate fish market. Squirming cargos arrived almost daily until the early 1900s; the last schuyt docked in 1938.
In Frampton-on-Severn, the Easter Monday elver eating competition was woven deeply into village life. Male contestants gobbled down a pound of fried elvers. A contest for women (only required to consume half a pound) was founded in 1973. With steeply declining numbers and sharply rising prices, the contest was cancelled in 1990. Revival followed in 2015 – with ersatz elvers known as gulas, produced in Spain’s Basque country. Dubbed ‘elvers’ locally, gulas consist of surimi, blocks of fish paste from Alaskan pollack and Pacific whiting.
In June 2019, the Sustainable Eel Group, a science-led, Europe-wide campaign organisation, marked its tenth anniversary with a two-day meeting at the Natural History Museum and a week-long eel celebration. A highlight was the arrival at ‘Dutch Mooring’ of a reconstructed schuyt, absent from London’s riverscape for over 80 years. My visit coincided with that of Pieter Hak, proprietor of the Noted Eel & Pie House, Leytonstone. Hak told the Dutch crew that his great grandfather, a schuyt captain,sent his youngest son to London to learn the eel pie business in the 1890s. After he met and married the daughter of an English eel and pie shop owner, they opened their own place in Bow in 1926. Hak gave the crew a copy of Stuart Freedman’s paean to this hallowed Cockney institution, The Englishman and the Eel (2017); Hak appears on the cover, grasping a live eel. (Note, however, that an Italian immigrant established London’s oldest surviving eel and pie shops in 1902.)
Two years after leaving the EU, this sort of fishy connection can help, in a small way, to conserve a sense of Britain’s Europeanness. Britain’s eels belong to a wider European family, biologically and culturally. Our migratory eel also has a resounding message in an age of mass trans-border movements, reminding us that where we call home is not always where we, or our parents, were born.
Peter Coates is Emeritus Professor of Environmental History at the University of Bristol. Some of the material in this post appeared in ‘Protecting Eurofisch: An Environmental History of the European Eel and its Europeanness’ in Greening Europe: Environmental Protection in the Long Twentieth Century – A Handbook (2022). Peter wrote a book on Salmon (2006) in Reaktion’s ‘Animal’ series and is currently writing a squirrel history of the UK.
For more on the European eel and its migration read the MMB blog by Michael Malay about the movement of the human and non-human in the Severn Estuary near Bristol: ‘Above the mud, the oystercatchers wheel with their sharp cries.’