Forgotten eels by Keeping it Wild Trainee Lee

Eel credit Jack Perks

In Melanesian mythology, a mysterious, huge serpent-like fish lives at the bottom of lakes. Known as Abaia, it considers all the creatures in their lakes their children and is fiercely protective of them, using its brute strength and magical powers it can thrash its tail to create a huge wave to fatally overwhelm anyone who dared to harm its children.

One story tells of a man who discovered a lake teeming with fish, he told the villagers about it and they caught many fish including the great Abaia. The creature Abaia escaped and caused a great flood, drowning the entire village, except for one old woman who had not eaten any fish.

The story is describing a large eel, possibly a longfin eel or a marbled eel. Although just an old legend originating thousands of miles away from London, it does highlight the mysterious persona of these interesting species.

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is our native species found in the waterways of London. This a catadromous species meaning they are born at sea and migrate to freshwater to live their lives before returning to the sea to spawn. So much is unknown about their life that there is only one record of a spawning site – the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. This is the end of the adults’ lives and the beginning on the young, who will go through an amazing life cycle lasting many years: The eel hatches from the egg into a transparent larva called leptocephali and then drifts along the jet stream and North Atlantic Drift, feeding on marine snow until it reaches Europe. As the larva transitions into freshwater it then metamorphoses into a glass eel, and further upstream into elvers. At this stage the elvers must navigate many obstacles to get upstream including dams, weirs and natural structures. Once in their juvenile grounds they then develop into yellow eels and finally silver eels. Their wild lifespan is unknown, although captive specimens have lived to be over 80 years old.

Being from the East End, I think I’m in the minority who has never eaten these – a bony fish full of jelly turns my stomach. I did however develop a childhood fascination of these creatures, and not just because the eel is my name backwards. I remember regularly checking in the fishmonger’s tank to see them swimming around whenever I was in Stratford and seeing fisherman land them from the Thames. Then suddenly, I only saw them in a plastic pot on the supermarket.

Westminster riverbank

Westminster riverbank credit James Cracknell 

Unfortunately, the reason I suddenly stopped seeing these sights so often is because of their sharp population decline. They are categorised as critically endangered on the ICUN list. While efforts to conserve this species is ongoing, it is difficult because of the mystery surrounding their lives. What is common knowledge however is that barriers to their migration is largely to blame. Infrastructure such as hydroelectric dams, means the young eels are not able to travel upstream and therefore never reach their nursery grounds. Other factors include natural changes to the Jetstream & North Atlantic Drift, pollution, parasites and overfishing which also contribute to their decline.

Although Greenpeace International has added them to their seafood red list, the European eel is Europe’s most illegally trafficked animal. Some reports suggest that 50% of declared European eel species are unaccounted for. Organised crime gangs are catching glass eels in huge quantities and exporting them to Asia. More promising however, is the new purpose-built structures such as eel ladders which allow safe and unobstructed passage upstream and the evidence that they are utilising them.

Eels are amazing fish that are extremely long lived and well adapted. They can even travel on land for extended periods of time, travelling from waterway to waterway. They have had a close connection to humans for centuries but are mysterious and rarely seen. I included the story of Abaia as I believe that it is perfect metaphor for the damage that has been done to the eel and our waterways. The eel suffers in popularity like many endangered animals. Instead of focusing on their non-cuddly looks we should celebrate the mystery surrounding this amazing animal and try to learn more.

The eel is a big part of London culture but an even bigger part of a healthy ecosystem. Let’s spread awareness of this enigmatic species.

Camera Trap Workshop

Camera Trap Workshop credit Penny Dixie

About Keeping it Wild

Keeping it Wild is a new project, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, that will empower and inspire 600 young people aged 11-25, from backgrounds currently under-represented in natural heritage, to gain vital skills while discovering, conserving and sharing their experiences of the capital’s wild spaces. 16-25-year-olds are invited to apply for a 12 week Traineeship, paid via a bursary. They based at one of our reserves, where they spend time learning from the London Wildlife Trust team, gaining valuable practical skills in urban nature conservation. Additional support for the Traineeships has been generously donated by the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers.

find out more