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Dutch fishermen say eel ban puts them on 'endangered list'

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by Staff Writers
The Hague (AFP) Sept 29, 2009
A delicacy in the Netherlands where it is eaten smoked on bread, the endangered eel gets a short reprieve as of Thursday when domestic catches will be banned for 60 days in a move fishermen say threatens their survival.

The ban, aiming to boost dwindling eel numbers, "will obliterate family businesses that have earned a living from fishing for many generations," said the Dutch professional fisherman's association.

Its members have blasted the measure as "incomprehensible" and threatened to challenge it in court if it goes ahead, saying they risk losing half their annual business in the peak eel fishing months of October and November.

"Fishermen earn 50 percent of their turnover during the months affected by the ban," association spokesman Han Walder told AFP.

And while the government would make available 700,000 euros (one million dollars) a year to compensate 240 fishing businesses affected by the ban, "that amounts to just 1,000 euros per company per month", he said.

The Dutch parliament is scheduled to vote on the plan on Tuesday, and the agriculture and environment ministry said while some parties had submitted motions on the topic, none had asked for the ban to be lifted.

"The ban on eel fishing will definitely go ahead as planned on October 1," ministry spokeswoman Cindy Heijdra told AFP.

Announcing the October 1 to November 30 ban earlier this year, agriculture and environment minister Gerda Verburg conceded: "It is a big sacrifice for fishermen.

"But it is also in the interests of the industry that the eel population is allowed to recover," she said.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) conservation group, the population of adult eels has dropped by 95 percent in the Netherlands in 50 years.

"Less than one percent of the 1980's stock of elvers (baby eels) remains today," said spokeswoman Clarisse Buma, adding that eels do not reproduce in captivity.

A WWF document said eels were just as much at threat of extinction as the mountain gorilla, the tiger or the panda.

"To eat eel on bread is like eating a panda sandwich," it said.

From next year, the ban would be extended by one month, running from September 1 to November 30. It will be reviewed by the Dutch government in 2012.

Some 1,000 tons of wild eel are caught in Dutch lakes and rivers every year, while 4,000 tons are raised in captivity for domestic and export consumption.

In June 2007, the eel was placed under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- the Geneva-based UN agency against illegal wildlife trade -- and was classified as a fish in which trade should be strictly regulated.

The European Union has asked all member states to present a plan for safeguarding the eel.

The Netherlands' first plan, which had the support of fishermen, was rejected by Brussels as insufficient in July.

It would have roped in eel fishers to help release into the Atlantic 157 tons of mature eel caught inland -- shaving some 15 percent off their annual catch.

The eels make the arduous journey to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic to spawn every year, from where their offspring travel back to Europe to feed inland.

"That (initial) plan would have been sufficient to ensure the recovery of the eel population," said Walder, whose organisation has issued a "distress call" to Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende to intervene.

Walder, however, insisted that fishing was not the only cause. "It is easy to blame the fishermen. Dam walls also cause huge losses" as they bar the eels' yearly migration to the Atlantic, he said.

While the Dutch consume mainly adult eels, elvers are preferred in France and Spain, as well as in Asia to where it is exported at 1,000 euros per kilogramme (2.2 pounds).

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