Ålagillet– a feast on endangered animals

14 January, 2022

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It is a fact that the eel is threatened with extinction, but opinions are divided as to how it should be protected. Världsnaturfonden WWF avråder i sin fiskguide att äta ål, hur den än är fångad. Men i Sverige är det fortfarande tillåtet att fiska ål, om du har licens för det. Havs-och vattenmyndigheten ger inte längre några nya licenser till ålfiskare, men idag finns det fortfarande 168 personer som har tillåtelse att fiska den utrotningshotade fisken.

Last November, ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) made new recommendations for how the eel should be handled, so that it does not become extinct. The Council is clear: all effects on eels must stop immediately, whether it is the death of eels due to hydropower, environmental pollution or fishing.

As a complement to the video report above, Deep Sea Reporter has contacted Mats Svensson, head of ocean management at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management. We asked why it is still allowed to fish for eel in Sweden, given the researchers’ new recommendations?

“ICES has given this advice. Now they have become more radical in the wording in the last year as well and if you have not followed it, you can well say that you do not follow the scientific recommendation. But that’s probably because most countries make trade-offs between scientific recommendations and other needs and other interests.

Isn’t that a little strange?

“There are many areas where we continue with bad habits and other ways, even if we know better. Often you need to make trade-offs with other aspects and other values, says Mats Svensson

This is not the priority given to the survival of the eel?

“Yes, it is probably hoped that the decommissioning plans we have will still save the eel for the future.

Discrepancy between researchers’ recommendations and policy decisions

But it’s a hope that’s not based on research. Because the research says the opposite.

– Absolutely, it does. The research says eels continue to decline. There may also be other reasons that we don’t have full control of yet. Science has mapped many factors, but perhaps there are other factors that also contribute to the situation. For example, climate change or environmental toxins,” says Mats Svensson.

” But the aspects we have an eye on should we be able to control?

” Yes, absolutely. But as I said, the discrepancy between scientific advice and what political decisions are taken applies in many other areas of fisheries as well. You simply make trade-offs between different perspectives and needs. It can be job opportunities, it can be culture and traditions, it can be social values, maintain a living countryside or living ports. You make trade-offs between these things, and what the research says.

A dilemma for civil servants

But HaV as an authority also makes recommendations to the government when it comes to water and fish management management. Therefore, one might wonder if the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management should not flag to the government that the management plan from 2008 is not in line with current research recommendations?

“Yes, we can say that, and both we as an authority and the politicians know the discrepancy. We have a political decision on a plan that we are tasked with following. If we are asked to comment on the plan, it can lead to us doing a reassessment, says Mats Svensson

– But do you only give your opinion if you are asked for it?

– Vi är den myndighet som ska genomföra den politik som regeringen väljer. So this is kind of a two-way battle. Vi kan säga till om det är någonting som går helt emot den förvaltningsplan som vi har tagit fram och fått i uppdrag att följa, men vi kan inte säga upp planen på ensidiga villkor och meddela att “nej det kommer inte vi till att genomföra”. Our mission is to implement the decisions of politics, says Mats Svensson.

Mats Svensson believes that this is a dilemma when working at an authority.

“You can have opinions, but it’s up to our government to decide what we’re going to do at the end of the day, and we have to do that. Otherwise, we are not good officials either.

We can’t have our cake and eat it”

But there is another side to the coin, says researcher Emma Björkvik from Uppsala University. She has done research on sustainable development and written her master’s thesis on the historical development of eel fishing. She believes that if eel fishing is banned, Sweden risks losing part of its cultural history.

“These fish are very dependent on the eel to be able to fish and continue to be fishermen. If eel fishing were to be banned today, it could mean that these fishermen would be forced to end their professional fishing careers.

Emma Björkvik believes that many fishermen have become more economically dependent on fishing for eels. If there were to be a definitive ban on eel fishing, she argues that it risks eradicating part of Sweden’s cultural history.

“And that means the fishermen’s knowledge of how to do it [conducts small-scale coastal fishing, ed.note] and how they have done it throughout history,” says Emma Björkvik.

She stresses that eel fishing is legal and she does not see accusing fishermen who are licensed to fish as a constructive solution to the problem. At the same time, the eel is critically endangered and continued fishing continues such an extinction. How does she view that aspect?

“So it’s really difficult, but I think that somehow politicians have to take a stand on this issue and decide: What is most important? If we decide to prioritize eels 100 percent, it is probably better to close the fishery, but then it is at the expense of losing this culture. We can’t have our cake and eat it.

Deep Sea Reporter has tried to reach Rural Affairs Minister Anna-Caren Sätherberg for a comment on how she sees the future of eels, but we have not received a response.

Reportage: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: Marcus Larsson, Robert Westerberg
Pictures of eels: Marko Wramén, Hans Berggren
UV Photo: Göran Ehlmé and Johan Candert
Editor: Alexandre Gobatti

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