Overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction killed European eels

Snake like fish swimming over rocks in river
European eel, photo: Michel Viard via Canva

European eels have been on Earth for 70 million years, but have become critically endangered in the last 40 years. Scientists and environmentalists warn they’re threatened by human activity and risk disappearing altogether.

“When I was young, eels were in every river and estuary,” French researcher Eric Feunteun, a leading expert on eels, told news agency AFP.

There once were so many eels that they were considered a pest, but the situation has significantly changed in less than half a century. The population of European eels is now just 10% of what it was in 1960-70.

“We sounded the alarm in the 1980s,” Feunteun said, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the European Union ordered its members to protect the species. The European eel is now on the critically endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction have killed snake-like fish. Feunteun said that fishing wasn’t the main factor, but that waters contaminated with pesticides, medicines and plasticisers had a much greater effect, especially on eels’ reproductive capacity.

The destruction of habitat is also a significant factor, according to Andrew Kerr, president of the Sustainable Eel Group. As an example, he cites the “draining of three-quarters of the wetlands of Europe” and the more than a million barriers, like dams, that make fish migration in rivers difficult.

“So we basically destroyed the eel’s habitat. And that’s what’s really killed it off,” Kerr told AFP. “Seventy million years of existence and 40 years of decline,” Feunteun added.

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