A “Heybridge Basin” full of of eels
Eel Varieties Description
There are several varieties of eel, commonly known, such as the The European eel, the American eel, and the Japanese eel, which are all very similar, then there are also other eel varieties such as
The Electric eel is not a true eel, but related to goldfish and carp. It has three sets of organs making up 80% of its body, capable of generating electricity, which can reach 500 volts at 1 amp, and can stop a human heart
Sand eels are also not true eels, but a variety of burrowing fish. They are commonly used by other fish such as Salmon, and most seabirds for food. They can be dug out of the sand at low tide and are available to buy for fishing bait
The Conger eel which can grow to 3mtrs and weigh 350lbs, is primarily a seawater eel found around British and northern European coastlines.
It is thought to breed in an area of the Sargasso sea, but is also thought to possibly breed in very deep water off our coast. The picture is of the first Conger weighing over 100 lbs caught off Cornwall in 1974 weighing 102 lbs 8 ozs.
The Moray eel, found mainly in tropical or temperate marine environments, can grow to approx 80 lbs.
Moray eels teeth
The wealthy Romans were very fond of eating eels and kept them in ponds, feeding them to encourage growth. They kept not only European eels but also Moray eels. Picture of Moray Teeth
In fact, it is reported that one Vedius Pollio threw his errant slaves into a tank of Moray eels to be eaten alive, until stopped by his friend Caesar Augustus.
Roman Mosaic of a bird eating an eel, and a Grouper eating a man/woman
The Romans are also often depicted on mosaics trawling for fish and eels
Mosaics of Romans fishing and trawling
Picture of Egyptian Bronze relic box 332-330 BC
Eels were also popular with the Ancient Egyptians, who associated them with the god Atum of Heliopolis, one of the oldest Egyptian deities, and attributed to the creation of the world. Eels and snakes were mummified, placed in bronze boxes with a three dimensional image of it on the lid. They were offered to the god in temples and then buried.
European / English Eels Life History
The mainly freshwater eel most common to British waters, is the European brown or silver eel, Anguilla or “little serpent” in Latin. In 1922 scientists discovered that all of these eels returned to breed in an area of the North Atlantic Ocean between Florida and Bermuda, known as the Sargasso Sea, named after the seaweed common in the area. The Sargasso sea is reputed to be some 4 miles deep, with the eels breeding at a depth of 1200 ft.
The Japanese eel breeds similarly, but in the Pacific, in deep water off the Phillipines
Eel Migration route from the Sargasso
The young eels, up to ½ inch long and translucent, drift northwards on the Gulf Stream to the American coast, and across the North Atlantic to Europe. This journey can take up to three years and by that time they have grown three to four inches long.
Size increase across the Atlantic
When they reach the continental shelf they have become translucent “glass eels” or elvers, and this is how they enter the tidal estuaries. Most of these now appear on the west coast of England, particularly the Severn estuary, where they are caught in hand nets, and were sold mainly to the far east.
As I speak, worldwide, Eel numbers remain very low, with levels declined by 95% or since 1980. In 2013 there was a large surge in numbers reaching the River Severn in England, with reported catches of 100, million elvers, the largest for many years The cause or causes of these fluctuations have yet to be established. International Agencies are recommending a reduction in eel fishing to allow number to improve. However the reason may be climatic which would be more problematic to solve, as breeding in captivity has yet to become a viable option, with only Elvers being caught and raised in farms to increase the number reaching maturity.
Most of the eels, travel upstream into the fresh water rivers, between February and May, firstly as elvers, becoming yellow, then brown eels, but some remain in the tidal estuaries and coastal waters. When in fresh water, the eels remain for a period of between 6 to 16 years until maturity. When mature they turn from brown to silver, being full of fat and preferred by the connoisseurs and the trade.
At this stage they return in the autumn to the Sargasso Sea breeding grounds, the journey taking up to 6 months.Whilst in fresh water they often travel overland to ponds, and lakes, during nights when there is a heavy dew keeping them wet.
They also end up in fresh water storage reservoirs such as Hanningfield and Abberton by being pumped there with the water from the rivers.In the past eel poaching was big business at Abberton and police patrols were instigated to catch the poachers. This was not replicated at Hanningfield, possibly because the high level of stocked trout probably kept the eel numbers down.
Abberton Reservoir 2015
Under regulations introduced in 2010, measures will have to be taken by water companies to prevent this. It is estimated that Essex & Suffolk will have to spend in the region of £6 million fitting screens to all river intakes.The Regulations , place an obligation on Water and other Company’s who extract water from rivers, to evaluate their intakes to minimize the entry of eels.
Currently, the Environment Agency is taking steps to address the situation, with 700 enforcement notices about to be served on those with pumps and machinery that may damage the eels, such as water extraction pumps. A measure that is likely to cost £100 million nationally, most of which will come from Flood Defence Budgets Also Eel management plans have to be produced for all River Basins, with structures installed to help them pass weirs and locks. There is also a restriction on Anglers taking eels without a licence, but ironically the Environment Agencies fishing section, last year sold 469 licences for people to net elvers, and 81 to net adult eels. Foreign Export has also been banned. Ironically there was a surge in numbers in 2013 with fishermen reporting catches of over 100, million elvers.
Japan is the largest consumer of eels, or unagi,at over 70% of the worlds consumption. The peak is in summer when they are supposed to provide stamina and energy in the heat. A sharp increase in prices have now rendered this a luxury which was once a staple dish across the country especially on the day of the ox which is possibly the hottest day of the year.
A recent program has been set up to supply schools across the country with a tank and to keep a small number of elvers for a few weeks prior to release in a local waterway. This is sponsored by one of the eel smokers operating from the River Severn in Bristol.
Hands full of Elvers
This although of some educational value may not be of sound environmental value as the elvers could easily be released into an un sustainable location eg in Purleigh 6000 elvers were released into the lake that when mature would most probably sustain between 50 to 60. As this is used as a fishery there will be heavy predation of fish stocks until the eel population diminish.
Dutch Invasion into Heybridge Basin
The following contains short excerpts from the book Maldon and the Tidal Blackwater Vol 1 by C A Devall.
The Dutch first started supplying eels to Billingsgate fish market during the 1400’s, followed later by Queen Anne, granting them a concession between 1702 to 1714, to moor eel storage boats, or schuyts, off Billingsgate, with at least one to be moored at all times, holding between 14 and 18 tons.
The Heybridge Basin Office
During the 1800’s due to the increase in London population the Thames became more polluted, affecting the taste of the stored eels, and causing them to be imported directly from Holland again into the market.Freshwater Fish such as Carp and Tench are widely consumed in Europe and The Kuijten Company of Sparandam, Holland, traditionally transported live carp and tench around Europe, in canal barges and trains. The business was started by a Gerardus Kuijten in the late 1800’s, who, orphaned at ten, lived with with his uncle. He started by catching fish on Thursday from a stream. He then walked 20 kilometers, in the early morning with a wheelbarrow, the fish contained in an ice packed box, to sell them in the Utrecht market on Friday. From this small beginning he built a huge seafood empire stretching across Europe and beyond, which included a large fish and eel farm in southern France He had 12 children, 9 girls who acted as agents buying fish in key towns in Europe, and three boys who acted as engineers on the fish trains that carried tanks of live fish, from Denmark and Northern Germany This was followed in 1924, by Johan Kuijten exporting eels to England in seagoing boats.
The Hans 2, The first eel boat to arrive at Heybridge
This trade did not increase until the storage facilities were created at Heybridge in 1928 using the two boats, the HANS 2 and the HELENE with a total capacity of 40 tons. Most of the local fishermen, worked for these Dutch eel importers ,who operated from 1928 to 1968 at Heybridge Basin. This was a valuable source of extra income, in a trade they knew well.Eels were brought to Heybridge for storage, prior to being transported to London. The source of the eels was initially Holland but spread as demand increased to Ireland, America, Canada, Poland, Tunisia and Italy.
Unloading eels from Boat to storage barge
Inside metal storage eel barge
The eels were initially transported from Heybridge by lorry to Billingsgate, by a Mr Wakelin of Goldhanger Road, leaving at 3.00am and returning mid afternoon.Each load consisted of 80 boxes holding some 2 tons of graded eels, with a maximum of 10 tons, when supplies were short in the market. There was a risk of high mortality rates if there was a delay in the journey
Eel boxes on the way to London
As trade increased the eel boxes were first replaced with open metal tanks on the back of the lorry, and then purpose built road tankers, containing aeration facilities and discharge pipes to aid unloading. Initially escaped eels could often be found along the roads in Heybridge.
In 1936 the business expanded, with storage increased in wooden storage trunks being brought from Holland, allowing the two boats to collect the eels and transport them to Heybridge. Both ships were trapped in Heybridge basin at the start of the war and business ceased.
By the early 1950’s a fleet of 34 storage trunks had been built with a storage capacity of approx 60 tons of eels, and preserved by tar from the Maldon gas works These were replaced by three purpose built self contained steel barges, having twelve compartments including built in flow and aeration facilities, and allowing all operations to be performed from the deck.
Following the war Johan revived his business, under the control of his son Hans, with eels being in plentiful supply from the Scandinavian countries. The wooden storage trunks at the basin were brought back into use and George Clark was taken on again as the Heybridge site manager. George had worked for the company prior to the war, moving the eels from ship to storage and storage to boxes for Billingsgate. Following the ultimate demise of the Company he became Lock Keeper at the Basin.from 1968 until his retirement in 1985
From the late1950’s there was a steady decline in the number of eels available, and supplies were even flown in from as far as Australia and New Zealand.
Eels were also transported back to areas which had previously been suppliers such as Holland and Italy. A combination of diminished eel supply, money exchange rates and transport costs brought about the demise of the Company in Heybridge in 1968. However the Kuijten family continue in the eel business with interests in Holland and North Island New Zealand
Jellied eels, Down the hatch !!
Eels have been consumed in very many countries for several hundred years, and were the most common fish in the Roman fishponds. They were a cheap, readily available food for those who lived by Rivers and ponds. In England we are most aware of them being consumed as jellied, or stewed, in Pie, Mash and eel shops, and roadside stalls, with other seafood. They are now available in supermarkets.
Michele Manze 1908 shop
Michele Manze arrived from Ravello Italy in 1878, and started an Ice supply, and Ice cream manufacturing business. He opened his first eel shop in 1902 in Tower Bridge Road which exists to this day. The picture is of his second shop opened in 1908.
Tubby Issacs 1919 Spitalfield
However most people associate Jellied eels with Tubby Isaac’s
Bowl of Jellied eels
“Tubby” Isaac Brenner founded the stall in 1919, but emigrated to America in 1939 to avoid the war, selling the stall to his nephew Solly, who ran it until his death in 1979. It is now run by Paul Simpson from the 4th Generation of the Family.
In mainland Europe, America and Japan, they are eaten fried, smoked, grilled and as sushi. Many tons are consumed annually.
Flemish Eel stew, Eel and Chips, Eel and asparagus, Eel icecream
The Belgians, Dutch and Germans particularly like them smoked or stewed, often in a green sauce of chervil and other herbs which looks vile but tastes delicious, whilst in Japan they also eat glass eels alive as a great delicacy.
Bowl of Elvers
Until the year 2000, on Easter Monday, there was an annual elver eating competition at Frampton on Severn when 1lb of fried elvers had to be eaten in the fastest time, usually about 30 seconds, Ladies only had to eat half a pound. An eel version of whitebait.?
Eel blood is toxic to humans and animals, but is rendered harmless by cooking and gastric juices. It was used for the Nobel Prize winning research into the discovery of anaphylaxis or sudden allergic reaction which can lead to death.
The consumption of eels is not allowed under Jewish religion, which forbids eating fish without fins.
In 2011 the Japanese paid up to £11,914 per kilo which could number from 2000 to 4500 eels depending upon size. These are then exported live by plane in insulated containers. They are either consumed as elvers, or kept in rearing ponds as farmed eels, much the same as salmon and trout.
The Japanese consume 70% of the worlds eels, with the largest demand on hot summer days, when they are as popular as Turkey is to us at Christmas, as they are believed to build stamina and combat lethargy to those who consume them. Katsumi Beppu the owner of the 160year old unagi or eel restaurant is concerned about the his future with the major decline in supplies
Most mature eels that are caught in East Anglia are supplied to Belgium and Holland for stewing and smoking. Jellied Eels consumed in England are mainly farmed imported eels.
Here in England eels have been caught in a variety of ways with nets and traps here are some early examples of english eel fishing
River Shannon Nets
Eel fisherman Chiswick on the River Thames 1898
Eel nets can currently be bought on Amazon for as little as £5 with a large variety on offer, they are just baited with fish or meat and left for a few days they are designed to let the eel swim in but not out. Obviously it is illegal to use these without a licence.
I have personally seen a film on German television, depicting eels being caught using a whole horse head on a rope. When the head was pulled out of the water several eels were inside it
The former Maldon Corporation were responsible for the fishing rights in the River Blackwater estuary, down to Stansgate creek. The river provided a good living for many, as it was well stocked with oysters, mussels and winkles, as well as eels, plaice and the seasonal cod and haddock etc. Even sturgeon were caught and presented to the Monarch of the day. There were well established fishing communities in Maldon and Heybridge, who earned a living from the trade. These fishing rights are now administered by the Maldon District Council.
Note the price on the licence above in 1837 at 2 shillings and six pence, currently 25 pence
Blackwater Estuary in Winter 1963
Numerous licences were granted for oyster and mussel dredging from the late 1600’s and earlier, with the oysters and mussels being virtually wiped out in the severe winter of 1962/3.
Clarrie Devall started the Maldon Oyster Company as a cooperative with local fishermen in 1960, in the upper Blackwater Estuary. Following the virtual eradication of Oysters and shellfish in the 1963 winter, he then introduced Pacific oysters in Goldhanger creek a few years later. Following the death of Clarrie Devall in 2002, the company currently flourishes in the ownership of Richard Emans, with Native oysters being grown in the Estuary. Large quantities of Oysters are exported as well as supplying London and local outlets.
Local records show a copy dated 1631 of a Memorandum concerning the arrest of trespassers fishing without a licence in Borough waters, and also notices being posted in 1825 specifically for the illegal fishing for eels.
Charles Wright of 14 Wantz Road was prosecuted in 1931 for eel fishing in Heybridge Reach without a licence. In 1674, the records also show that Thomas Turner, fisherman, Robert Beard, butcher, John Day, tailor and Dorothy Sames, widow, were amongst those granted 7 year leases to fish for eels and Floatfish at 40 shillings annually. On Wednesdays and Saturdays to be put on sale on fish stalls in the marketplace, sufficient eels at reasonable rates and prices for the local inhabitants, before selling at other townes or places.
The lease price by 1709 was £6.10s annually
The Maldon Corporation or Burgesses were allowed to fish at any reasonable time for their own dyett, and not put their catch on sale.
Prior to the disappearance of the eel grass Zostera Marina in 1933 in the Blackwater, trawling and trapping eels had provided a major part of the income of the Maldon and Heybridge fishermen, with the eels sold at Billingsgate. The Maldon Corporation held the fishing rights to the Knowle Sands until 1840 when they were subject to a legal challenge
Eels are predominantly scavengers, eating anything edible, and in turn getting eaten. It is claimed that eels eat crayfish and there are currently trials to establish this to reduce the number of immigrant signal crayfish.
Pike with eel breakfast
In 1891 an eel was caught at Heybridge basin, who’s stomach contained 9 small perch and a rat. The largest imported eel to arrive at Heybridge weighed in at 8 1/4 lbs.
Both the freshwater family of European eel and marine Conger eel are in very great demand, and as the numbers of adult eels has fallen, eel farming has become big business in Japan, China, the far east, America and Ireland amongst other places, all mainly dependent upon glass eels and elvers being caught to fatten up.The Japanese have been experimenting for some years trying to breed eels in captivity, with limited success.