(Repeats Friday item without changes)
By Sam Cage
CRUMLIN, Northern Ireland Nov 1 From the food
stalls and pie shops of Dickensian London to haute cuisine
restaurants in Tokyo, the eel has a long and rich culinary
history that transcends classes and national borders.
But it is becoming an increasingly rare delicacy as stocks
plummet and Europe's fishing industry shrinks to make itself
With an annual catch of about 600 tonnes, Europe's largest
commercial eel fishery - and the United Kingdom's largest lake -
is Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.
Those whose families have fished its shallow grey-green and
nutrient rich waters for generations believe their traditional
industry and way of life may be coming to an end.
"There will not be another generation of fishermen. More
than half are of pension age. Whenever I finish that will be the
end," said Shane O'Neill, a sprightly 70 year old from the
nearby town of Crumlin who has worked the lake since 1960.
According to legend, Ireland's patron Saint Patrick removed
all its snakes, which represented the Devil, and many went into
the water and became eels - one possible reason why they are not
a popular dish in Ireland.
So most of the lake's produce - protected under European law
in the same way as champagne and parma ham and a delicacy in
countries including Germany, Poland, China and Japan - gets sent
Selling at around 6 pounds ($9.7) a pound (450 grams) or
three times the price of other eels, Lough Neagh's catch is also
exported across the Irish Sea to Britain.
Londoners used to harvest eels from the Thames and they
became a staple for the city's working class, whether jellied -
chopped and boiled in a stock that cools and sets - or baked in
a pie with mashed potato.
But most of the capital's eel outlets have long since
closed. This week the government, which says the fish is as
closely linked to the city as its black cabs, put one that is
still doing business, the L Manze Eel, Pie and Mash Shop, under
special architectural protection.
A DYING BREED
The decline of London's eel shops mirrors a sharp drop in
The number of young eels reaching the continent's river
systems, where the fish mature before returning to the Sargasso
Sea in the Atlantic to breed, has fallen by up to 99 percent
since the 1970s, according to the International Council for
Exploration of the Seas group of scientists.
"It's gone from an extreme abundance to a massive drop of
arrivals," said Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel
Group conservation organisation. "It is a similar level of
endangerment to the tiger or panda."
There is no single explanation for the drop but possible
causes other than overfishing include parasites, damming of
rivers, pollution and changes to the course of the Gulf Stream.
Scientists say it is very tricky to keep tabs on populations.
The EU has plans to maintain numbers, including allowing 40
percent of adults to escape to the sea, and member countries are
limiting fishing, making migration easier and restocking.
"There's pressure to shut down fisheries. It's a basic
conservation measure to stop fishing them," said William
O'Connor of the Ireland-based European Eel Consultancy.
Around Lough Neagh, eel fishing supports some 300 families
and contributes more than 3 million pounds ($4.8 million) a year
to the local economy, but few young people are interested in
working a demanding physical job for little reward.
Fishermen work from 3.30am until 6pm and a boat can bring in
800-900 pounds a week plus a bonus - but only for the summer
season and running costs and taxes have to be paid from that.
The cooperative business, founded by a Catholic priest, now
has fewer than 60 boats on the lake from more than 200 when
O'Neill started fishing. It already has to ship in eels from
mainland Britain to maintain numbers.
O'Neill believes there will soon be none left casting long
lines, with hundreds of baited hooks attached, from the small
wooden boats that work the often stormy lake.
"Most fishermen wouldn't want their sons to carry on fishing
and some won't let them," O'Neill said. "They are better off on
the dole (unemployment benefit)."
($1 = 0.6221 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Cathal McNaughton; Editing by John