The European eel, Anguilla anguilla, is one of 19 species in their genus, found in the Northern Atlantic south to Mauritius, the Mediterranean, North and Baltic Seas and the rivers that feed into these ocean bodies. They are a popular food fish, and have been fished for centuries. Like other anguillid eels, European eels have a complex life history, spending most of their life in the “yellow eel” growth phase, during which they inhabit the bottoms of fresh and brackish continental waters. European eels can live more than 50 years in this stage, but more typical is about 20 years; females generally live longer than males and grow to be about twice the size. The record length for a female European eel is 133 cm (4.4 feet). Upon reaching sexual maturity, the eels, now in the “silver eels” phase, migrate long distances to spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic between March and July. This migratory phase of their lifestyle is recently described, poorly understood. Adults die after spawning. The planktonic larvae, which until recently had been described as a separate species as they look so different from adults, hatch at sea and drift back to continental waters where they develop into small, transparent “glass eel” larvae. They metamorphose into the pigmented elver stage as they begin to feed and travel to freshwater inland rivers, lakes, streams and estuaries to complete their development. Nocturnal opportunist carnivores, they eat a broad diversity of fish and invertebrates, and will also scavenge on dead organisms.
The European eel is critically endangered, its population in a significantly depleted state such that the IUCN cites that it may not in fact be able to recover unless a long-term, stringent recovery plan is instated. Since 1980 it has experienced a disappearance of older eels and a 90% reduction in the recruitment of its glass-eel stage across the full extent of its range, and there is no sign of population recovery. The full explanation for the recruitment and population crash of these eels is not fully understood. Heavy, unsustainable fishing of all life stages continues to impact a downward decline of the population. Its popularity especially in Asian cuisine brings enormous demand and extremely high prices. As yet, anguillid eels have not been bred in captivity but captured glass eel stages are widely farmed. In addition to overfishing, A. anguilla suffers from a nematode parasite, Anguillicola crassus, introduced by Japanese eels (A. japonica) farmed in Europe in large open pens alongside A. anguilla. European eel decline is also partly due to habitat loss and degredation, dams, which disrupt migration routes, climate change effecting spawning areas, and other anthropomorphic activity. Seafood Watch, a highly-regarded sustainable seafood advisory list, recommends that consumers avoid eating A. anguilla.
(Freyhof and Kottelat 2010; Halpin 2007)
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