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December 26, 2012

The Critically Endangered European eel

© OCEANA / Enrique Talledo


Holidays are here and many people in Europe go out and buy some eel for their Christmas dinners, as they do every year. But what many might not know is that the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is critically endangered and threatened with extinction. To provide some perspective, this threat level is higher than that given to the polar bear or the giant panda.

Many people might also not know the amazing journey that the eel goes through during its life cycle. When the eels reach sexual maturity they make a very long and distant journey to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn, and die. When the eggs hatch, small larvae emerge. These small larvae are free swimming, and with the help of the Gulf Stream they begin a 300 day journey back to Europe.

By the time they get there, they metamorphose into small transparent fish. In this stage they are called glass-eels. Then they enter freshwaters and swim upstream where they again metamorphose into small eels that look like the adults we are more used to seeing. They then grow for many years and become adult yellow eels, named for their yellow-brownish bellies. At this point, as they become full grown adults, the cycle begins anew.

Many supermarkets across the Baltic have stopped selling eel and in Denmark, COOP, a leading consumer goods retailer that operates many supermarkets in the country has also pulled this species from its shelves. There have been some attempts at bringing glass eels from Southern Europe and rehabilitating the population in Danish waters but there has been no evidence that these eels have been able to find their way to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Unfortunately, little is known scientifically about the eel.

Oceana has proposed several areas for protection in the region that are important for saving not only eel but also other endangered species in the Baltic Sea & Kattegat.