Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Eels Slip Away From Europe's Dishes"


For three generations, An Pauwels's family restaurant has been dishing up paling in t'groen -- a much-cherished Belgian specialty that combines thumb-size chunks of eel with an emerald-tinted hodgepodge of herbs. It translates as "eel in the green."

The flat, damp lands of Flanders -- crisscrossed with streams, ditches and canals -- are ideal eel territory, making paling in t'groen a rival to mussels with fries or beef stewed in beer as the national dish. In the erstwhile fishing village of Mariekerke, a few kilometers upriver from Ms. Pauwels's De Groenendijk restaurant, an annual festival sees aficionados get through 8,000 kilos during a three-day binge of eel eating.

They may be slimy, snakelike and a distinct turn-off for many people, but eels have formed an integral part of European cuisine since the time of the ancient Greeks. Yet without urgent action, scientists fear this mysterious beast could disappear from the continent's waterways and dinner tables for good.

European eel stocks have fallen to below 10% of 1970s levels, according to the International Council for the Exploitation of the Sea in Copenhagen. In parts of the Baltic and Mediterranean 99% of the stocks are believed to have vanished.

The eel's precipitous decline has been blamed on river pollution, hydro-electric dams, global warming, changes in ocean currents and deadly parasitic worms, but many experts say overfishing is the biggest problem...

Pollution in the Scheldt means any eels that survive are unfit for human consumption, and commercial fishing has been banned for decades. These days, Belgians are forced to import their eels, mostly from Denmark, Sweden or Ireland.

The decline in eel is threatening eel dishes across Europe, where they are deeply rooted in traditional cuisine and are consumed in a bewildering manner of styles from the Atlantic coast to the Aegean.

In the pintxo (or snack) bars of the Basque country, spaghetti-thin baby eels used to be tossed with garlic, olive oil and guindilla chili and piled high on slices of baguette. Plucked from the lagoons of Portugal's central coast, pencil-size adolescent eels are deep-fried whole in a light batter then crunched as finger food, pointy head, bones and all. At the other end of the continent, the Zemaiciai restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania, promises eels measuring half a meter from tail to toothy grin as part of a muscular appetizer menu that includes smoked pig's ear, snout and tongue. (Chilled vodka and a glass of their home-brewed beer help wash them down.)

Poles take their eels roasted with carrots, parsnips and mustard sauce; smoked eel is a street snack served from pavement fish stalls around the Netherlands.

In Hamburg, aalsuppe is a rich, sweet-sour chowder that aligns eel with a bewildering variety of vegetables and dried fruits; Venetians also sweeten eels from the Po delta, adding sultanas and brandy to enrich anguilla all'uvetta...

From 1995 to 2005, the European Union estimates an average of half a billion live baby eels were exported every year to East Asia. As their numbers shrank, the price rose almost tenfold during the decade, reaching over €700 per kilo in 2005, according to EU statistics. In 2007, the European eel was classified as a protected species by Cites, the international convention governing trade in wildlife. Exporters must now apply for government authorization to sell eels abroad. The Dutch government wants to go further, urging the EU to ban exports. But France and Spain especially are unwilling to cut off a trade that was worth around €30 million last year for hard-pressed fishermen around the Bay of Biscay.

"There is very big money in that business, really big money and the French and Spanish just keep selling to the Chinese," says Belgian eel importer Frans Borremans. "I hope it will change and governments will say it must come to an end and that we keep our eels in Europe."

There has been a heavy cost for Spanish consumers. The price of baby eels, or angulas, there has soared as numbers have fallen, making them a rare luxury nibble in posh restaurants rather than popular tapas fare. At the opening of the season last November in the northern port of Ribadesella, one restaurant was reported to have paid €2,075 per kilo, although the price later settled down to €450. With the real thing beyond most people's price range, Spanish tapas bars now serve a fishy eel substitute made from surimi fish mush.

To ensure the eel doesn't slip slide away, the EU is introducing a recovery plan to limit catches. Even if they are successful, EU experts acknowledge it could still take more than 20 years before stocks recover.

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