Who migrates further, the eel or the person trying to conserve them?
Not that it’s a competition, of course, but I do think that I win.
The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) – the species of Anguillidae that has the longest migration; at a generous estimate, might travel up to 20,000km in its lifetime, if it visited Norway or Turkey during its lifetime before migrating back to the Sargasso Sea to breed.I did over that distance during a trip to the Philippines to visit a project aiming to conserve a number of these species.
In my defence, the 16 species in the family Anguillidae are a pretty cosmopolitan gang, with only West Africa, Eastern Pacific and the Polar regions escaping their meanderings. Which is not that outlandish considering they breed in the open ocean and feed and grow in continental waters (both fresh and saline) – a life history known as catadromy. It is this incredible life cycle that, to my mind, is one of the major reasons that we have seen declines in their numbers over the past 30-40 years; they are exposed to pressures in both the marine and freshwater environment and as they breed in very remote parts of the ocean, it is nigh on impossible to protect what is ultimately the only essential part of the life-cycle. As such, there is a steep hill to climb for those that have chosen fighting these glorious beasts’ corner for a career. And this is why I migrate more than my slippery buddy, the eel.
A lot of my work involves acting as a PR agent for the eel – most people’s immediate response is to flinch, mutter something about snakes and change the subject quickly. At this point, I set ‘charm’ to stun and drop a few knowledge bombs about how incredible eels are. So my first trip in the latter half of the year was to the IUCN Species Survival Commission Leader’s Meeting in Abu Dhabi. This was basically a gathering of the clans for all those, like me, that have a calling to conserve particular species and are recognised by IUCN as experts in this field. This can range from the obvious large mammals, right through to fungi – my concern that I had picked a niche species was kicked right in to touch at this meeting. And it was extremely enlightening meeting many people who had been in species-focussed conservation for many years longer than myself. I do get the sense that I may have got a bit boring in each workshop I was in, repeating the refrain ‘ah, but that doesn’t apply to anguillids’… And again, this is the reason they need people on their side; they have a most idiosyncratic life cycle that we know very little about and multiple threats both to them and their habitats, many of which we have little or no control over – e.g. climate change, invasive parasites and PCBs.
It was from Abu Dhabi that I travelled to the Philippines to visit a project I oversee from afar in collaboration with a wonderful in-country team who do all the hard work. The Philippines became an unlikely hub for the eel world about five years ago when the EU banned the export of the European eel outside of its borders, creating a massive hole in the East Asian import market. Prices for juvenile eels – known as ‘glass eels’ went into the $1000s – and traders saw a lucrative opportunity. At least five anguillid species are found in the Philippines, but only one is really in demand for the food market (Anguilla bicolor). Unfortunately, many of the fishers in the Philippines who caught the glass eels saw relatively little of the riches from this goldrush – though a significant boost in their primarily subsistence income. In addition to this, local and national governments had little capacity or experience to deal with this massive increase in exploitation and trade, and the ecological, economic and legislative challenges that accompany them. As such, myself and colleagues at the wildlife trade organisation TRAFFIC developed this project in collaboration with the bureaus in the Philippines government responsible for aquatic resources and biodiversity, and received funding from the Darwin Initiative. Our main aims were to assess the trade from the Philippines in the context of global trade, determine the effects that the fishery is having on the eels in the Cagayan River (the largest in the Philippines) and the socio-economic status of the fishers, assess the habitat of the Cagayan basin, and identify threats to the freshwater biodiversity.
We are now over halfway through the project and the team have made incredible progress, working with local communities, and local and national governments. At present they are developing a local eel management plan and nation eel fishery guidelines, as well as playing a key role in the development of freshwater habitat survey techniques and establishing river sanctuaries in key locations in the Cagayan basin. TRAFFIC have also produced a comprehensive report on the Philippines role in the global eel trade – http://www.traffic.org/home/2014/11/3/report-reveals-changing-dynamics-of-philippine-eel-trade.html
And so ends a whistle-stop tour through three weeks in the life of an eel-fancier. For a short while when I first started working with eel during my PhD over 15 years ago, I wondered what I was getting myself into, and felt slightly embarrassed to admit what my field of expertise was becoming. I’m pleased to say that this quickly passed and I now bellow my credentials with pride and approach those that have yet to be bathed in the eels’ beautiful, and somewhat slimy, light with zeal. At work, I’m generally known as ‘the eel guy’, and frankly, I could not be paid a higher compliment.