Eels have a complex life-cycle. As larva they drift on the oceanic currents to brackish estuaries and freshwater river systems. After a long growth phase they migrate back to the spawning grounds to reproduce and die afterwards. This migration pattern is characteristic for all 16 species of the Anguilla genus such as the European eel A. anguilla that migrates 6,000 km to the Sargasso Sea, and the Japanese eel A. japonica that migrates 4,000 km to the Mariana Ridge. Eel is highly appreciated as consumption fish around the globe and market demand is high e.g. for smoked large eels in North-West Europe, for Kabayaki in Japan. Eel fisheries and aquaculture answer to this need. As fatty migrant, eel is among the fish with highest levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
World-wide, eel populations have decreased strongly in numbers since the 1970s. Despite management measures and other protective efforts, the European eel is on the IUCN red list as ‘critically endangered’. The existing eel farms still depend on the catches of glass eels in nature which are then raised to market size. Only a restricted number of glass eels is available for aquaculture and societal concern exists about the lack of sustainability.
Successful reproduction in captivity could supply aquaculture with glass eels and close the production cycle. This way, reproduction could contribute to the sustainability of both eel aquaculture as well as management of the natural populations.
- Japanese researchers have recently closed the life cycle of Japanese eels A. japonica in captivity. Still, they experience many problems to repeat this success; to grow larvae and initiate metamorphosis into glass eels; and bring levels to commercial production.
- European researchers have produced larvae of European eel A. anguilla but not one of the groups is able to feed them. For the last ten years now, this has been the crucial bottleneck.
- New Zealand researchers produced larvae of A. australis and A. dieffenbachii and American researchers of A. rostrata but also here were researchers not able to feed larvae.
Current research initiatives are either of national or commercial nature. This creates a spotty distribution of independent activities by small research groups with large overlap. With still the large gap to commercial production, a high urgency exists to share experience (expertise, tools and people) to close this gap. Both on European level with groups working on the reproduction of European eel, but also internationally with the incorporation of Japanese research groups in particular. As Japan is the largest consumer of eel products, with eel as a crucial omega-3 fatty acid contributor to human health, Japan represent the major local problem owners. The former EU projects EELREP and PROEEL have proved the added value of combining forces. These collaborative projects, sharing back ground knowledge and providing valuable foreground knowledge, have defined proof of concept for this approach to work.
Aim of EELRIC
The aim of the Eel Reproduction Innovation Centre EELRIC is to function as a platform for the reproduction of eel in captivity and home for an international consortium of partners sharing experience and collaborating to create breakthroughs.