When veterinarian Dr. Jose Luis Crespo asked me if I was interested in joining him on a trip to collect some European eels (Anguilla anguilla) from near Murcia as part of an ongoing research program, I jumped at the chance. I loved the idea of getting up close to these animals, collecting some pictures and getting to see a new part of Spain.

European eels hold a special place in the hearts of Valencians. Historically eels were so abundant in the local freshwater wetland known as the albufera they were used for fertilizer and animal feed. It also became the critical ingredient in a favourite traditional dish called allipebre, a garlic and jalapeño creation. Since that time of abundance, fishing pressure, habitat loss and other factors have taken a dramatic toll on the population, resulting in significantly lower numbers returning to the area. In fact, the annual catch in the albufera has gone from a high of 70 tonnes in 1961 to three tonnes in 2015 and the young have become so rare that during the Christmas holidays, the fry sell for up to €600 (about $870) per kilogram.

Dr. Jose Crespo is one of the team collecting eels in an attempt to uncover more about their life cycle and migration patterns.

Dr. Jose Crespo is one of the team collecting eels in an attempt to uncover more about their life cycle and migration patterns.

These changes are a major concern for the local community, and researchers at Instituto Oceanografico Español, the Oceanografic Aquarium and the Universitat Politécnica of Valencia have begun capturing and studying these eels as part of a program looking at the impacts of pollution, parasites and their reproduction.

Planning for a three-hour road trip takes a little work at the best of times, but prepping to drive hours with 70 escape artists is a different type of journey. We loaded up the shipping habitat, large secure lid and life support system and headed out.

The trip south along the Mediterranean coast was beautiful as we passed through several communities and ended up at the Instituto Oceanográfico Español in San Pedro del Pinotar near Murcia. Our plan was to fill our holding vessel with water and begin the process of transferring the eels over so we could return to Oceanografic as quickly as possible.

The challenge, eels can be one of the hardest to capture fish out there. Their slender muscular bodies and slippery skin, aided by copious amounts of mucus make collecting and transferring them particularly difficult. Thanks to experts Elena and Cristina at Instituto Oceangráfico Español, we made quick work of collecting the 70 animals, with only one briefly escaping our grasp before being safely gathered up.

Eels group shot

Dr. Crespo and I (far left) with the team from Centro Oceanografico de Murcia.

Based on their appearance, I think it is fair to say eels have an image problem. Most people are turned off by their snake-like appearance and don’t spend any time looking deeper at their amazing life cycle. This species breeds in the Sargasso Sea and then migrate huge distances before returning when mature to breed. In fact, the full details of this eel’s life cycle is poorly understood and one of the many mysteries that our oceans still hold.

Our mission this day is part of a broader attempt to understand their complete life cycle and the threats they face in order to help protect wild populations. We hope to discover how to help these animals in the wild and see if we can remove market pressure by using aquaculture to raise them.

With our eels safely loaded in the van and their life support system in place, we returned to Oceanografic in Valencia in record time. Upon our return the animals were put through a quick treatment bath to help prevent skin infection and kill parasites before moving to their holding area. At the aquarium they will receive amazing care under Jose Luis and the veterinarian staff’s watchful eye and we will work with Dr. Ignacio Giménez from Rara Avis Biotec to start the process of observation and study to learn more about their life cycle. What we learn from these animals will help us protect this and future generations of eels.

Dolf DeJong is the vice president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. He is currently on assignment at the Oceanografic Aquarium in Valencia, Spain, supporting the staff of Europe’s largest aquarium as they expand their conservation and education efforts. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a world leader in engaging the public through education on the wonders of aquatic life. We aim to inspire individuals and organizations to make conservation-minded choices for the betterment of our blue planet.

 

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