Every year between May and October, DHL ship boxes of live eels packed in ice from Belfast International Airport to Heathrow and Schipol, sent by the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society in Toome.
It is mid-morning and the fish shop on West-Kruiskade in the centre of Rotterdam is selling out of smoked eels. The demand these days always seems to exceed the supply. Lovers of this treat are worried.
Pat Close of the Lough Neagh Fishers insists they have nothing to worry about. He sends the same message out to those who have been predicting the end of the Lough Neagh eel fishery and others like it.
Toome-born into a farming background, Close gave up a good job as an advisor in the Department of Argiculture, accepting the call of the eels. They needed help and he was ready to give it.
Like everyone in the area of Lough Neagh he knew about the crash. Two years before he joined the coop, the young eels migrating along the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Florida didn’t turn up.
After years of between eight and fifteen million eels coming into the Bann at Coleraine every year, the number was down to 726,000. It was a global problem. Every estuary in Europe that attracted eels saw a decline.
To alleviate the problems caused by the crash, the coop started buying young eels from other fisheries. ‘Lough Neagh is a commercial fishery being exploited, not over exploited, and in order to maintain the intensity we need to maintain that stock, not only would that affect our business it would have an impact on the eels stock of Europe.’
‘If we weren’t here the eels would be depleted, this is a finite resource and needs to be managed. We let 40% go back to the Sargasso Sea.’
The real issue, Close insists, is local. No new fishing licences have been issued for 20 years and this presents Close with a conundrum. At its peak there were 200 boats licenced to go out on the lough, now there are 113. A hundred on the lough is the limit and will remain so while eel stocks are low.
Because the costs of running a boat is high, the fishing has remained with the families who have the tradition, passing from father to son. This knowledge base and the skills that go with it, Close acknowledges, are the key to the future of eel fishing on Lough Neagh.
With a turnover of £3m a year, the vast majority going into the communities around the lough, he knows the fishers and the fish must be sustained. And with the fishers getting older, Close wants to see younger people involved but fears the seasonal nature of the work and the long days are a deterent.
‘They go out after 4am, all out together, they look after each other, a couple of hours to lift the lines, grade out the young eels, back in for 7-7.30, into the coop at 8.30, and go out at midday again, to continue a couple of hours, running lines, quite a long day, and I would like to see more young people in it.’
In the Netherlands they hope so too. They know what Close knows.
‘Lough Neagh eels are unique, the flesh is perfect for smoking, which is why they are regarded as the best in Europe.’
An oily fish rich with omega 3, the Dutch eat more smoked eel than fresh eel. They only smoke the fatter fish, because it tastes better, which is why they covet Irish eels and are worried that one day they will be gone. This is a typical dressing for smoked eel.
This is a typical dressing for smoked eel.
- Smoked eels
- 1 small cucumber, chopped
- 60 ml olive oil
- 15 ml soy sauce
- Half a lemon, juiced
- 2 tablespoons basil, torn
- 6 blades of chive, chopped
- Black pepper, pinch
- Salt, pinch