Millions of baby eels have been released into German rivers as Europe tries to save its once vital fishery. Police recently caught smugglers of eels, prized as aphrodisiacs in Asia but banned from export, near Frankfurt.
Some 1.2 million juvenile Atlantic eels caught off France were released into the Elbe well upriver of Hamburg on Tuesday by conservation officials and anglers in a bid to restore Europe's fishery, decimated since the 1980s.
Unable to breed eels in captivity, Europe depends on mature eels returning to the western Atlantic Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to mate — and then die — but spawn larvae that are carried by the Gulf Steam toward Europe before swimming up its rivers as young "glass eels." Maturity takes up to 12 years.
Since the 1980s, Europe's eel populations have slumped 90 percent along inland waterways and in the open North Sea even more drastically, turning "glass eel" smuggling to Asia from Europe into what Europol once described as "Europe's ivory trade."
Experts attribute the die-off of the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, to a mix of aquatic habitat loss, fatal power station water intakes, toxins, parasitic infestations, climate disruption and over-fishing.
Upstream releases in the Elbe
Tuesday' release took place at Bleckede in Lower Saxony state, 60 kilometers (39 miles) up the Elbe from the port of Hamburg.
Similar releases totaling 256 kilograms (560 pounds) of juvenile eels took place in adjacent tributaries flowing into the Elbe.
Last week, Berlin also released two million young eels into its elaborate network of (navigable) waterways fed by rivers such as the Spree and Havel.
Funding to bring the young eels in canisters on a three-day trip from Atlantic waters off Nantes in France and restock Germany's waterways came from the regional states and the EU.
At Bleckede, Lower Saxony Chamber of Agriculture coordinator Volkmar Hinz (pictured in main image) said the eels — each about 10 centimeters (2.2 inches) in length — should eventually end up in the Atlantic spawning waters.
Downriver at Hohnstorf, one of the region's few remaining professional anglers Eckhard Panz told Lüneberg's Landeszeitung newspaper that last year he had only caught 800 kilograms in the Elbe.
"Tens years ago it was more than ten times that much. In the meantime with my eel net I haul almost only [introduced Asian] Mitten Crabs out of the river," Panz said.
"Here along our 200-kilometer stretch of the Elbe, we number only five professional anglers. In the 19th Century there were 1,900, and all caught eels," he added.
Eel smuggling ring busted
Last month, near Frankfurt, German customs officers said they busted a glass eel smuggling ring, arresting two Malaysians and one Chinese.
Inside a disused Chinese restaurant at Liederbach in the Taunus hill region, detectives found four pump-filtered water tanks filled with 210,000 young eels. Surviving eels were released into the Rhine river.
Prized in Asia as aphrodisiacs and thought to be sourced from France, Spain or Portugal, they could have been worth between 3000 and 5000 euros ($3400 and $5600) per kilogram, officials speculated.
The probe had been spurred by travelers caught carrying eels while trying to depart Frankfurt and Stuttgart airports in December and January.
According to the animal welfare organization Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), young eels fattened at Asian fish farms, mainly in China, reach as much as 30,000 euros per kilogram.
Artificial reproduction 'distant'
Since 2014, Germany's Thünen Institute of Fisheries Ecology, near Hamburg, has taken part in EU research efforts, including Denmark and the Netherlands, to artificially reproduce European eels and improve survival chances when on maturity they enter the Atlantic to spawn.
In 2017, the team said it had hatched larvae and extended their survival up to 23 days but concluded that artificial breeding remained "in the distant future."
ipj/se (AFP, dpa)