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Eel, European

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Common European eels are famously slippery, slimy fish that spend the majority of their lives in rivers and streams but return to the sea to breed. They have been eaten for centuries but are becoming increasingly rare and should not be caught or offered for sale. 

Sustainability Overview

Common eels are rarely fished for in Cornwall but if you ever see them for sale please dont buy them. European eels are listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, they are in decline all around Europe due to a range of factors including habitat alteration, dams, pollution and fishing. Eels are exploited in all life stages and those that are fished do not have the chance to breed. Eels have a low resilience to fishing and a complex life cycle. Fishing mortality is both high on juvenile (glass eel) and older eel (yellow and silver eel) in many water systems. Estimated European catches have declined to about half that of the mid-1960's. There is urgent need for better conservation of this species through a coordinated recovery plan and a ban on fishing for this species.

In 2021 a total of only 24kg of eels were landed to Cornish ports (MMO data).

Updated July 2023

Sustainability ratings for this species

All Applicable Methods

Avoid regardless of capture method.

Learn more

How we rate fish

Cornwall Good Seafood Guide rates fish on sustainability using a scale of 1 to 5.

1, 2 and 3 are recommended, Fish to avoid are rated 5.

We use the system devised by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) so our scores are comparable with the scores produced by MCS for the UK and fisheries from all around the world. For more information on scoring click here.


European eels are unusual fish in that they live for the majority of their lives in estuaries and rivers but once mature they return to the sea and swim for thousands of miles out into the Atlantic ocean meeting in the tropical Sargasso sea where they spawn once and then die. The eggs drift back with the gulf stream and hatch en-route and tiny larvae eels known as glass eels arrive in European waters in spring time each year. They head up stream and then live in estuaries and rivers until they are mature and return to their spawning grounds. European eels grow to a maximum size of 80cm and live for up to 30 years. 

Stock Info

There is one single European eel stock. This is severely depleted and at a historical minimum, which continues to decline at an alarming rate and is dangerously close to collapse. All available scientific information indicates that the current fishery for European eel is not sustainable, and that the stock is at a historical minimum and continues to decline. All glass (juvenile) eel recruitment exhibits "clear and marked decadal reductions since the 1980s, and yellow eel since the 1950s". Recruitment of glass eels has fallen to 5% (continental Atlantic) and less than 1% (North Sea) of 1960-1979 levels, although 1970s recruitment was at the historical maximum. The status for European eel remains critical and shows no signs of recovery. The advice from ICES (November 2013) repeated from last year is that the status of eel remains critical and urgent action is needed to avoid further depletion of the stock. In 2007 the species was included in CITES Apendix II that deals with species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled to ensure its survival. The listing was implemented in March 2009. Eel was listed in September 2008 as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. Official advice by ICES shows that whilst there has been a slight increase in glass eel recruitment, the status of stocks remains critical. ICES advice for 2014 expresses the need for all human-caused mortality (e.g. recreational and commercial fishing, hydropower, and pollution) influencing production and escapement of silver eels to be reduced to as close to zero as possible. This should remain the case until there is clear evidence of a continued increase in both recruitment and the adult stock. Restocking under the eel management plans is not expected to have contributed to increased silver eel escapement yet because of the generational lag time. The efficacy of restocking for recovering the stock remains uncertain while evidence of net benefit is lacking.



There are no significant eel fisheries in Cornwall currently although in the past they have been harvested in a small scale. Eel fisheries in estuaries are managed by DEFRA.

Capture Info

Eels are caught using fine mesh nets in estuaries with differnent fishing methods for each life stage. 


European Eel ICES Advice 2023/4
Defra. 2010, Eel Management plans for the United Kingdom ,South West River Basin District
Defra. 2010, Eel Management plans for the United Kingdom, Overview for England and Wales

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