top of page

The European Eel

The life cycle of Anguilla Anguilla is arguably the most fascinating of any creature. After drifting on the Gulf Stream over vast distances in a truly wild and hazardrous environment the eel arrives at our shores, and then moves through our river systems, sometimes along ditches, drains and even underground streams and springs to find stillwaters, all the time preyed upon by man and other predators. Those that survive and grow to the size that we wish to catch are a worthy quarry, and deserve the utmost respect. Then, on maturity and given the opportunity, the adult eel makes its way back to the sea and once again undertakes an epic journey back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

The exact location of the spawning grounds of the European Eel is not known. However, as the smallest larvae, known as Leptocephalus, are found in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda this suggests that spawning occurs nearby, at a depth of around 200 metres. Once the spawn has developed into Leptocephali the larvae then drift northeast on the Gulf Stream, arriving in early winter off Southern Europe and in spring or early summer in Northern Europe after a journey of some 6,000 kilometers over a period of up to 3 years.

Once they arrive in coastal waters, the leaf-like larvae transform into eel-shaped, transparent juveniles called glass eels or elvers. These glass eels gather in river estuaries and wait for the river water to reach 10-12°C, before swimming upstream and migrating into inland waters. During this period in estuarine waters, the glass eel is exposed to intense pressure from commercial fishing, and only a small proportion survives. During the journey upstream pigmentation takes place, and the glass eel acquires green and brown pigmentation to become the yellow eel.


During this time the male eels grow to an average size of 40 cm and the females to 70 cm. The oldest recorded eel reached age 84, and the current UK record is 11lb 2ozs. Any eel in excess of 4lb is considered to be a specimen, and fish in excess of this weight are not plentiful.

On reaching sexual maturity, and providing that they are able to gain access to a route back to the sea, the eel then undergoes one final transformation into the silver eel. During this change, their backs darken, their bellies whiten and their eyes grow bigger. They are then ready to start their final journey, back out to the Atlantic Ocean to spawn. On their way out of the rivers they are targeted once again by commercial anglers. Those that survive then leave the rivers and commence a 6,000 km journey lasting around 6 months back to the spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Once spawning has taken place the eel dies.

It is generally accepted amongst scientists, environmental organisations and other bodies that European eel stocks are close to, or may be at, a level that is biologically unsustainable. The Eel Management Plans that are now in place across the EU are intended to address this, but it may be too little, too late. In this circumstance, we (the National Anguilla Club) feel that to take even a single eel is morally incorrect, does not aid the survival of the species, and sends the wrong sort of message. Eels are arguably one of the finest eating fish but that is not a good reason for killing a fish that is in a precarious position.


Bear in mind, too, that the eel cannot be bred in captivity. The whole stock relies on successful spawning in the Sargasso. We cannot make up any shortfall. As for taking the odd eel from still water making no difference, we should remember that, once they have reached sexual maturity, eels will return to the sea to spawn at any size or age, if conditions are correct, and they are given the opportunity. So that odd one taken could be, or grow into, a big female that will produce huge quantities of spawn, and it might just tip the balance. The loss of one species from the system would be disastrous, and will impact on many other species, particularly as the eel is a keystone species. A keystone species is one which is disproportionately important to the maintenance of community integrity and following whose extinction major ecological changes would ensue.

Buying a tub of jellied eels or a pack of eel sections for bait doesn't help either, because we feed the commercial operation, which operates on a supply and demand basis.

Commercial eel fishing is only one of the threats facing the eel: climate change, pollution, barriers on rivers, predation, pollutants, disease-you name it, the eel is affected by it. I implore all thinking anglers not to add to the list.

So the plea is: Put all eels back, and do not buy them to eat or use as bait. If you catch an eel by accident or design, always put it back, even if you cannot remove the hook. They do survive, and have a remarkable ability to shed hooks. If you are fishing for them deliberately, strike at the earliest opportunity, and use barbless hooks.

More information on the European Eel can be found by clicking on the icons below.

bottom of page