The vigorous growth in demand for eel fry, particularly among Japanese consumers, has prompted the European Commission to act to prevent overfishing of stocks. However consumers worldwide are increasingly turning to fresh fish over farmed equivalents in the wake of recent health scares, which means the overfishing debate is set to intensify.

Eel fry or elvers have long been a delicacy in regions on the Atlantic coasts of Europe, from Portugal to the Severn estuary. However it is the rising demand from Japanese consumers that has made elvers fishing so valuable since 1995. The Japanese eel market is mostly supplied by fish farms in China, however there are currently no successful techniques for breeding eels in captivity. As a result, Chinese fish farms have to buy live elvers in Europe to be sold in Japan.

The rising demand for eels from Southeast Asian markets has been something of a windfall for fisheries along the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. With prices varying between €188 and €312 per kilogram of live elvers, their pursuit offers a much-needed boon to coastal fishing fleets.

On the stretch of coast between the Loire Estuary and the Spanish border, the 1,800 vessels of the coastal and estuarine fishing fleet derive up to 60% of their income from this trade in live eel fry, making the species more valuable than the better known sole and cod.

However, as part of its review of fishing quotas and European fisheries policy, the European Commission has warned that eels were now imperilled because of overfishing, and that urgent measures need to be taken to preserve eel stocks. The European Commission considers that the high prices fetched by live elvers constitute a “very strong economic incitement to continue fishing until the total exhaustion of existing stocks”.

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This is only the latest case of the effects of consumers’ growing demand for a small selection of fish species, particularly cod. Growing numbers of consumers are increasing their consumption of fish because they believe in its health benefits. The recent food scare regarding farmed salmon is likely to increase the pressure on wild stocks, leading to further tension between European food regulators and the region’s fishing communities over the imposition of quotas.

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