Wild eels driven from UK market

DUBLIN — Thanks to Brexit, the eels of Northern Ireland can no longer slither their way to the East End of London.

The fishermen who ply Europe’s biggest source for wild eel, Lough Neagh west of Belfast, normally ship a fifth of their catch to merchants at London’s Billingsgate Fish Market, where they are stewed and jellied Victorian-style.

That decades-old supply chain has suddenly become illegal because the EU in 2010 banned the export of European eels outside the bloc — and since January 1, Britain has left that single market.

Pat Close, chairman of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Cooperative, said it typically sells 50 tons of eel each year to London merchants, a trade worth at least £500,000 (€650,000). That’s small fry for the Northern Ireland economy but crucial for fishing communities that circle what is the largest lake in Britain or Ireland.

Unlike European eel farms, Lough Neagh’s eels are caught in two-man boats using barbed hooks or nets, often at night, a tradition dating back to the Dark Ages and attracting much hard-scrabble romanticism since.

Northern Ireland’s late Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, had family ties to the fishermen. He wrote of their skills catching the “greasy grey and wriggle-spined” fish in “Eelworks” and “A Lough Neagh Sequence.”

A London-based alliance of English and Dutch merchants controlled the lake’s eel harvest until 1971, when Lough Neagh fishermen led by a local Catholic priest pooled together enough money to buy them out.

The EU’s export ban reflects the reality that the European eel population is steadily collapsing. It is listed as critically endangered.

Eels remain in high demand in Asia, fueling underground smuggling that Europol estimates involves more than 300 million eels a year. Customs agents sometimes catch China-bound smugglers hiding bagfuls of infant eels, called elvers, in their luggage.

While eel farmers in Britain can no longer ship to the EU, the eels of Lough Neagh still can be shipped to EU markets because of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol. It keeps Northern Ireland within the customs union to avoid enforcement of border controls with the Republic of Ireland.

This means Lough Neagh’s fishermen can retain about 80 percent of their current market, chiefly in the Netherlands, where the eels are commonly smoked and sold to Dutch and German consumers.

Lough Neagh-caught eel can command a premium over farmed eel because, just like Champagne and Parma harm, the EU has awarded them a prized protected geographical indication as a region-specific product.

But Brexit also has dammed up the other half of the fishermen’s supply chain — those fledgling eels called elvers.

Nature supplies Lough Neagh with eels via breeding grounds some 5,000 kilometers away in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea. The elvers arrive as two-year-olds by migrating, like tiny salmon, up the River Bann to the lake and can spend the next two decades there before resuming the epic journey back to the Sargasso.

But Europe’s supply of elvers has collapsed to just 1 percent of 1980s levels, forcing Lough Neagh increasingly to buy extra stock from English and Welsh eel farmers on the River Severn. That trade has suddenly become illegal, because the same EU ban on eel exports also bans eel imports from non-EU locations like Britain.

Lough Neagh’s main supplier, UK Glass Eels, says its business is endangered as a result.

“We always thought Northern Ireland was a bit of a home market,” its director, Peter Wood, told the BBC.

“We could ship glass eels from the River Severn to Lough Neagh in an hour and a half,” said Wood, who once backed Brexit but regrets it now. “With the Northern Ireland Protocol, it could be in the middle of the world as far as we’re concerned.”

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