European eel conservation measures rankle

Traditional eel fisherman Peter Carter holds an eel at first light on September 30, 2010, near Outwell, England.

TEXT OF STORY

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: It's been a tumultuous winter fishing season in France. French fishermen have even gone on strike opposing a European-wide ban limiting the export of eels. The restrictions are aimed at conserving the species, which is in steep decline across Europe and in Britain.

Christopher Werth reports.


CHRISTOPHER WERTH: A good place to begin this story is here at this old, traditional jellied eel shop in London's East End, where owner Bob Cooke is dishing out my first ever bowl of stewed eels.

BOB COOKE: There's your eels there.

I couldn't bring myself to order the jellied ones -- they just looked too slimy.

COOKE: Your parsley sauce. How's that for you?

Eels used to be a cheap, popular dish among London's working poor, but these days, Cooke's shop is usually empty.

COOKE: Look at the time: Quarter past twelve. You're my first customer.

Today, the demand for eels comes from aquaculture farms in China, where a pound of live baby eels from Europe can fetch as much as $500 -- lucrative for fishermen, but worrying for conservationists like Heidi Stone of the U.K.'s Environment Agency. She says the number of baby eels returning from the open seas has dropped over 90 percent, and no one is sure why.

HEIDI STONE: It's not one thing. It's going to be a combination of factors: climate change, overfishing, lack of habitat.

As a result, the European Union banned the export of eels last year. That meant fishermen in France -- where most eel fishing takes place -- were making a lot less money, and they weren't happy about it.

But here at one of the last remaining eel fisheries in the U.K., owner Peter Wood is happy the ban is in place.

PETER WOOD: This fishery has been very good to the people working in it, and we need to make sure that it's available for future generations.

Most of his eels go towards restocking Europe's depleted waterways, but he says the demand from China has driven up the cost of eels and that kind of restoration.

WOOD: It has simply just been a take, take, take process to Asia.

Here in Europe, the EU lifted the ban for a few months last year under pressure from the French fishing industry. Now the ban is back in place. Wood says this time he hopes it sticks.

In London, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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