”Misinterpreting the scientific advice”


Commission fails to follow science's advice on eel fisheries

The European Commission is not abiding ICES' call to stop all eel fishing next year. Instead, it proposes tightening up the system of closure periods for the fisheries. "The Commission is misinterpreting the scientific advice," says Baltic Sea Centre’s fisheries scientist Henrik Svedäng.

Text: Henrik Hamrén

Text: Henrik Hamrén / Foto: Jiri Bohdal

Ahead of the Council of Ministers' upcoming TACs and quota negotiations, the European Commission on Monday submitted its proposal, a so-called non-paper*, on how the EU should deal with the controversial eel fishery next year.

Earlier this year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) recommended for the first time a total ban on all eel fishing, including glass eel fishing, in all European waters. The Commission does not want to go that far. Instead, it is proposes that the system of closure periods for three consecutive months continue. So far, countries could choose when in the year the closure period is to be introduced. For next year, the Commission proposes that the Member States should determine the three-month closure within the periods of the highest migration of eel in their nationally managed fishing waters. 

– Here in Sweden, the authorities have so far chosen to stop fishing from November to January, when eel catches are at their lowestl. From this perspective, it is good that the rules are tightened," says Henrik Svedäng, fisheries scientist at the Baltic Sea Centre.

– But really, it's all a non-issue when it comes to the European eel. 

What do you mean?

– The eel is a highly endangered species. The situation of the stock is acute. ICES is very clear and says that all fishing must be stopped next year, in all habitats. In this situation, proposing shorter fishing-free periods instead of a total fishing ban shows that the Commission is prepared to disregard both the science and the precautionary principle in order to safeguard the interests of the fisheries, says Henrik Svedäng.

However, in its proposal, the Commission clearly refers to ICES latest advice. 

– Yes, but it is misinterpreting the scientific advice and what ICES actually says. Not least regarding the wording that certain fisheries can have positive conservation effects on eels. 

How is that? 

– ICES refers to things like helping the eel to get upstream, or trap-and-transport where adult eels are caught and released back downstream of power plants and other migratory obstacles. According to ICES, such measures may in some cases be rational from a conservation point of view. However, the Commission's proposal instead presents it as an argument that eel fishing and relocation of eel would be a good conservation measure in general. Which, of course, it is not. On this point, ICES is also very clear, partly because if all fishing is prohibited, there is no eel to move, except within the same watercourse. And on the other hand, there are new scientific evidence that suggests that eels lose their orientation if they are moved from one area of Europe to another, says Henrik Svedäng.

The debate on how Member States should help their common eel stock has been going on for over a decade. Already in 2007, the EU adopted an eel regulation setting out a plan for how the eel stock would recover. 

In 2017, ahead of the Council of Ministers' TAC and quota negotiations, the European Commission actually proposed a total ban on all eel fishing in EU waters. However, the proposal was not heard by the Member States. Instead, the system of three-month closure periods was introduced.

– In terms of negotiations, this was a setback for the Commission, partly because Sweden first said it was willing to stop eel fishing but then changed its position, saying that all other countries should stop fishing eel. Perhaps that is why ICES advice to stop eel fishing is not being followed this time, and the proposal is to carry on with the same measures as before, says Henrik Svedäng.