Wednesday 7 March 2012

Vanishing Species

I started filming local crafts and traditions to capture them before they disappeared completely.
I hardly expected the losses to take effect quite so soon, before I had finished the film in fact.
On Saturday evening I dined with the eel-catcher who appears in the film.   During the course of the evening  the conversation inevitably turned to eels.  It seems that eel numbers have declined so much over recent years that they are in danger of becoming extinct.  I guess the majority of anglers will welcome this news.

Eels found in the East Anglian rivers (Anguilla anguilla) breed out in the Sargasso Sea, in an area between Bermuda and Puerto Rico.  The tiny eels are carried by the Gulf Stream until they reach the coasts of  Europe as two or three year old elvers.   They will spend the next twelve years living and growing in our rivers until they are mature enough to return to the Sargasso sea to breed.
The mature silver eels move down river on their way to the distant spawning grounds in late summer and autumn, mainly at night.
 Anguilla Anguilla
Two factors have conspired to threaten the species.  The first is a virus that effects the swim bladder of the eels.  The second is the export of the small elvers which are considered a delicacy and command a high price.   Both these factors result in fewer eels reaching maturity to return to the Sargasso to breed.  It is quite probable that children three generations on will never see a live eel and it is a racing certainty they will never see a live eel catcher.

During the early part of the nineteenth century there was an abundance of eels in the East Anglian waterways.  Some eel catchers made a living by trapping this remarkable fish while the marshman was probably satisfied with taking an eel or two for his family needs with an eel pick.
The Eel pick was a long handled tool with springy tines.   This method was used in shallow inland waters and salt water estuaries.  The eel catcher would look for bubbles from the eel’s fore and aft blow holes.  He would then strike with the pick, if done correctly the tool would be removed with an eel trapped between the tines.   Herons use their bills in the same way.

 Eel Pick
At the end of the nineteenth century catches were recorded by the stone.  In 1914 one eel catcher landed 129 stone of eels in a season.  
The biggest eel ever caught was in 1738 – it weighed sixty two pounds and measured twenty six inches around its girth.   

Ely in Cambridgeshire was once known as the Isle of Eels before steam power was used to drain the surrounding fens.  Such was the value of eels in the 11th century, that they were accepted as payment for taxes to the crown.

One hundred years ago many eel catchers lived aboard small boats out on the broads and estuaries; they used nets and traps to catch saleable volumes of eel.
Eel traps or hives, were made from willow with a conical funnel at the base and  a bung at the neck.  The funnel allowed the eel to squeeze into the trap but once inside it could not get out.  
Willow Eel Hive

The same principal is applied to fyke nets.   
The fyke net is a long net supported by metal hoops with three funnels or purses at the end, a long runner guides the eels into the purse and traps them in the same way as the old willow traps. 

My Eel-catcher friend assured me that eel numbers have declined by some eighty five per cent in the last few years - no species can survive those kind of losses.  Catches of eels are down year on year to a point when it is no longer viable to catch them for profit.
Long gone are the days when boxes of eels covered in wet sacks would be sent by rail to London to provide the capital with their diet of  "jellied eels"   Unless some form of conservation is rapidly deployed we will lose these remarkable creatures.  

Sadly it seems my trips out with the eel catcher on those long summer evenings are already a thing of the past.

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