FAO-GFCM report: The European eel in the Mediterranean Sea – The future of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla), an iconic fish species that is also popular in Mediterranean cuisine, is currently under threat. But a management plan that includes a partial closure of the eel fishery each year, a total ban on recreational eel fishing, and the creation of a monitoring network to identify effective management measures could help reverse the situation.
Eels are critically endangered and face threats such as climate change, habitat loss, pollution and overfishing along all their migratory routes, which originate in the Sargasso Sea and extend in a distribution range from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. In 2020, the migration of young European eels to freshwater habitats, a crucial stage in their life cycle, reached an all-time low.
The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) responded to the situation and launched a comprehensive research programme in nine Mediterranean countries between 2020 and 2022.
The results of this work, published in the report The European Eel in the Mediterranean Sea: Results of the GFCM Research Programme, provide a detailed overview of eel fisheries, habitats and the biological and ecological characteristics of local stocks. The report also offers a comprehensive look at current management and conservation measures and performs a model-based assessment of key measures.
The report identifies lagoons as a crucial habitat for eels in the Mediterranean Sea. However, lagoons face significant challenges, including climate change, fishing pressure and pollution.
Habitat loss, poor water quality and pollution are also evident in other eel habitats, such as rivers and estuaries.
The research also found that despite the many fisheries management measures in place, some of them, such as closed seasons and bans on fishing at certain times, showed little harmonisation and were often not sufficiently aligned with local conditions, reducing their efficiency.
The decline of eels has a negative impact on fishermen as catches have declined exponentially.
“Before me, my father and grandfather fished here. We all fish to make a living. Unfortunately, we fish very little now. We used to fish a lot,”
said Adriano Deiana, an eel fisherman in Sardinia, Italy.
Dwindling resources are also pushing fishermen out of work, resulting in losses in the traditional knowledge, management and environmental protection that fishermen used to provide.
A coordinated management plan for recovery
The dire situation underlines the need for action on several levels.
“The European eel, the habitats it inhabits and the livelihoods it supports require action and protection on all fronts: biological, environmental, socio-economic,”
said Elisabetta Betulla Morello, one of the report’s editors and GFCM fisheries manager.
“Cooperation is essential to identify and implement appropriate measures, not only to manage the fishery but also to protect the environment and the socio-economic context around this species,”
Building on the transitional measures already in place since 2021 and based on the results of the research programme, the GFCM adopted a multiannual management plan for the European eel in the Mediterranean Sea in 2022. It provides for a partial closure of the eel fishery for six months of the year, with alternative options for its implementation. It also imposes a total and permanent ban on recreational fishing for European eel in all stages (glass eel, yellow eel and silver eel) and in all habitats – freshwater, brackish and marine. These measures were reinforced in 2023 with additional precautionary measures for the protection of glass eels.
Another key part of the plan is the creation of a monitoring network involving fishermen and scientists across the Mediterranean to identify effective management measures, adapted to specific situations and implemented by all stakeholders. Workshops have already brought together fishermen, scientists and administrators, sharing case studies and best practices, with the aim of replicating them elsewhere.
Exploring socio-economic impacts: the second phase of the research programme
A socio-economic study is part of the next phase of the research programme, which will also expand existing habitat databases and gather information to evaluate management measures.
The ultimate goal is to ensure the conservation of species and the preservation of the artisanal fishing heritage within Mediterranean coastal communities.
FAO-GFCM report: The European eel in the Mediterranean Sea