As endangered as the African elephant, the pygmy hippopotamus or the panda bear, European eels may be about to disappear forever. To help save the species, German rivers are being restocked.
"We used to catch 10 to 15 eels when we used to go out fishing in the evenings but now that doesn't happen any more," said amateur fisherman Jochen Meyer, who has been casting his line in and around the Rhine River for more than fifty years.
Meyer disinfects several plastic buckets and lines them up on the banks of the Knielinger Lake in southwestern Germany. Along with dozens of other fishermen sporting waders and thick jackets, Meyer stands under a beech tree in the rain waiting for the restocking truck to arrive. It's carrying a precious cargo - some 70,000 European eels.
As the eel truck rumbles to a halt, the fisherman spring into action. In an exercise executed with military precisions, the writhing brown eels are scooped out, weighed and distributed into the buckets of the waiting volunteers. Car doors slam as people race off to get the fish back into the water as soon as possible.
The 6-8 cm long creatures being restocked here are known as farm eels, though the term is somewhat misleading. The eels were caught as tiny wild glass eels off the coast of European countries like England, France and Spain and then fattened up in the safety of German eel farms for six months.
Today they are being released back into the wild in the upper reaches of the Rhine and its tributaries.
"If the eels swim up the Rhine by themselves, mortality is much higher so we catch them and beef them up them to lower the mortality," said Ralf Oberacker, the President of the Baden-Württemberg State Fishing Association.
The European eel, known as "Anguilla anguilla," needs all the help it can get. Eels once used to be so common in European rivers, lakes and estuaries that they were considered a poor man's food. As late as the 1950s, cart loads of them were used to fertilize crops or as pig fodder.
Now, however, the European eel is listed by CITES as critically endangered. Stocks have plummeted to around one percent of what they were thirty years ago.
"Eel stocks are no longer biologically sustainable," said Stephan Hüsgen, a fisheries officer with the Karlsruhe Council. With his clip board in hand, he assiduously makes the volunteers sign for the bucket loads of eels they carry off.
The young eels released back into the wild today will spend up to twenty years in the backwaters and tributaries of the Rhine until they are ready to breed. Then they will set out on an incredible 6,000-kilometer (3,728-mile) journey down the Rhine and across the Atlantic ocean to their spawning grounds in the subtropical waters of the Sargasso Sea, off the coast of Bermuda.
But their migration down the Rhine is a dangerous undertaking because of the swiftly rotating blades in the turbines of hydroelectric plants.
Eels use the current to orient themselves and the current is naturally strongest where the giant turbines suck in water to generate power. This means large numbers of eels are mashed up before they even reach the ocean.
"There is currently no adequate protection measures to stop this from happening," said Hüsgen.
Even if mesh grids are placed in front of the turbines to stop the eels swimming through, the current pins the eels on the mesh, explained Hüsgen, and so they can't continue their migration.
One study estimated that that up to a quarter of all eels passing through a single hydroelectric plant were killed.
"Scientists have been working on a way around this problem for years," Hüsgen said.
Hydroelectric power plants aren't the only reason for massive decline of the eels though. Other probable causes include over-fishing, habitat destruction, changing ocean currents as a result of global warming, disease and pollution.
The eels released today face another threat in the Rhine. This part of the river is in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which has a year-round ban on catching eels. But if the eels take a short swim over to the other side of the river, they swim into the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
There, as elsewhere in Germany, any eel longer than 40 cm is fair game for fishermen despite the species' endangered status.
Author: Kate Hairsine
Editor: Gabriel Borrud