The Only Way to Preserve Eels Is to Eat Them All
I joined the few remaining fishermen who are hoping to give the eel population in the Netherlands a helping hand.
A golden eel is featured on the civic crest of Heeg, a town in the Dutch province of Friesland. Eel once made the locals rich. From the 17th century until 1914, this place was responsible for exporting eel to London, where the Brits turned the fish into pies. Per the king's executive orders, the eel fishermen even had their own docking place in the river Thames, close to the place where the Tower Bridge would later be built. These days, the last eel fishermen in London send most of their fish to The Netherlands, which is one of the few countries that still considers eel a delicacy.
There isn't much eel left in the Dutch waters, and even in Heeg, there is only one remaining eel fisherman: Freerk Visserman. If you think of an old, crippled man with a long grey beard when you hear the word "fisherman," I'm sorry to tell you that Visserman isn't that guy. He's 35 years old but looks even younger. A hat covers half of his curly, blond hair, and he looks more like a surfer than a traditional fisherman.
According to Visserman, we need to keep eating eel in order to save it. "Only then does eel have value to the economy," he says, "and will money be spent on saving it." Currently, biologists and scientists depend on the fishermen to know how many eels are left.
Visserman loves talking about eel. He has expanded his small fishing business with tours on Frysian lakes, a guided visit to the woodworking museum (which features a replica of an old eel ship, like the ones they used back in the day on the Thames), and trips to local parties dedicated to smoking eel on an island called Hegemer. He makes a little bit of money guiding these excursions, but mostly enjoys explaining the importance of eel to people and sharing the history of eel fishing in The Netherlands.
I call Visserman because I want to go on one of these excursions with him. Visserman has a better idea: "We're going to a lake in the Veluwe nature reserve to release 1,000 eels into the wild. It's going to be very special."
To improve the low eel count in the Dutch waters, Dutch non-profit Dupan (which stands for Stichting Duurzame Paling Nederlalnd, or Nonprofit for Sustainable Eel in The Netherlands) is helping out. The Dutch government allocates 1.5 million euros each year to get the eel count up again. At the end of the fishing season, eels are released in different places in The Netherlands.
I meet Visserman in the Harderwijk harbor, next to Jan Foppen's fishing company. Foppen has a big boat, which will take us out onto the lake. He's also fishes for eels, but he combines his fishing duties with the import and export of salmon.
Aside from Visserman and Foppen, I also meet Magnus van der Meer and Dirk Meijvogel. Meijvogel is friends with Foppen and has joined us to help release the eels, just like me. He was a fisherman at some point, a descendant in a long tradition of fishermen from coastal town Katwijk, but a few years ago he found God and now he's a preacher. A small tattoo of an anchor, which he inked on his own forearm with a needle when he was only 14, reminds him of his past.
Van der Meer works as an advisor in fishing management and knows a lot about fish food. He's doing freelance work for Dupan. "The Netherlands is a closed-off delta—nothing comes in or goes out. That's why we're helping the eels a little bit. They are caught at sea and fed in fresh water until they're nice and fat. Part of them are then released back out in the wild, so they can swim back to the Bermuda Triangle, where they procreate."
For many reasons, the eel has been struggling for years. According to Foppen, the Dutch have shipped between 100,000 and 150,000 eels to Asia over the past 25 years, though export from the European Union is now prohibited.
The city of Amsterdam also dumped dirty water in the nearby IJsselmeer lake for years, and farmers were allowed to use all of their manure on the land. This added valuable nutrients to the water, so it became fertile. Algae grew, which attracted bugs, which in turn attracted small fish like smelt. Eels love smelt.
According to van der Meer, the eels really had a field day when the water in the IJsselmeer became fresher after the completion of the big Afsluitdijk dam, which separated the lake from the sea. "The moment you change something in the ecosystem, opportunists take over," says van der Meer. "It wasn't just the eel that benefited; huge swarms of mosquitos also started to pop up."
Conveniently, young eels love mosquito larvae. In the 60s and the 70s, there were more eels than ever before. Dupan is now trying to reach that same level again.
In addition, many areas around Europe are trying to farm eels. The town of Volendam is making an effort, as are fish farms in Germany and Denmark. "I heard that they're getting good results in Volendam," says Foppen. "They have been able to create young larvae that eat their own eggshells. After that, though, they won't eat anything else. No other fish is so insistent on refusing. Salmon comes out of its egg and starts eating right away. You know exactly how to farm a certain amount of salmon in a certain amount of time. It doesn't work that way with eels."
"This project in Volendam goes a little far, in my opinion," says Visserman. "They're spending billions on this. They're experimenting in labs with the effects of light and darkness and faster currents and God knows what, but they can't make it work. It would be funny if it wasn't so crazy expensive."
I ask Visserman what the difference is between a wild eel and one that has been farmed. "The taste," he insists. "A bit like the difference between eggs from a free-range chicken and those from a factory farm. Not everyone will taste the difference, but an expert does. The wild eel has to source his own meals, and has a varied diet as a result. The soil and the water also account for the difference in taste."
All of a sudden, a small round figure in oilskins and rain boots appears. It's Foppen's eight-year old son, who is also called Jan. I'm getting a bit dizzy, surrounded by not one but two Jan Foppens. The sides of Little Jans' head are shaved just like his dad's, and they both have a tuft of hair right at the top of their head. Little Jan got the day off from school because he has never witnessed the eel release before.
We unload the eels from the tank truck and onto the boat. The sun is shining, and the water is calm on the lake. Everyone is wearing oilskins. I stick out like a sore thumb in my city clothes and leather shoes.
We then transfer the fish again, this time to an even smaller boat, and go in the direction of the shore. Using small fishing nets, we throw the eels overboard. It's like dipping my net into a huge, moving knot. The slippery animals crawl underneath and on top of each other in slow motion. While I scoop them out of their tank, water gushes onto the floor of the boat. My shoes are soaking wet within minutes.
I ask Visserman what it is about eel fishing that is so appealing to him.
"I used to work as a mechanic and I liked it. Then it all became too easy, when computers got involved. You could see right away what was wrong—it was just boring. Apparently I'm looking for something a bit more hands-on. After traveling around for a while, I went up to my dad and told him I wanted to take over the business. That really surprised him."
We go back and forth a few times on the boat. We're dealing with thousands of eels and they can't all fit at once. Luckily, the weather is nice.
The next time the small boat leaves to release more eels, Little Jan and I stay on the big boat and drive it around the lake. The boy sits on the captain's chair on his knees and controls the boat like it's a bicycle. He once took his entire class out on the water. At one point, we hit the bottom of the lake hard, and I become frazzled. "Not to worry," says Little Jan while backing up the boat like a pro. As we finish for the day, we return to the harbor.
Once we set foot on land, the elder Foppen informs us that there's food ready for us.
We strip the smoked eels of their skins and gobble up big chunks of fish off the bone. There's more than enough for everyone, and we eat like there is no tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL in September 2015.