I’ve been a member of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG) for over a decade now. An organisation that I am very proud to be part of.
One of the guild’s objectives is to recognise people within the food and drink industry on the island of Ireland with our annual awards.
Out of the eight awards given to food and drink products, producers or individuals in 2023, Lough Neagh Smoked Eels were one of the recipients. Lough Neagh eels are delicate, delicious and definitely a product that is deserving of an IFWG Food Award. It also holds a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, which not a lot of Irish products have.
The story of the eel
Seamus Heaney immortalised Lough Neagh, the fishermen, the extraordinary lifecycle of the eels and the fishery at Toomebridge in his work – A Lough Neagh Sequence, a seven-poem collection that he wrote while courting his wife Marie Devlin who was from the area. When you stand on the shore of Lough Neagh, in front of the vastness that is reminiscent of an ocean, you can appreciate Heaney’s lure for the lake to be a subject for his poetry and the wonderful story of the wild eels within.
The long migration of the eels to and from Lough Neagh is an incredible story. They are believed to spawn in the Sargasso Sea between the Azores and the Caribbean and travel to the shores of Lough Neagh in County Antrim; carried across the Atlantic Ocean by the Gulf Stream. A journey that takes years from salt to fresh water and then eventually back again. Pat Close, Chairman of the Lough Neagh Fishing Co-Op, explains, “The European eel, as it is known, is an indigenous species in Lough Neagh. It is the same species of eel that is found throughout Europe. Each year a percentage of the eel stock in Lough Neagh will head out of their system and head back to sea. People, quite rightly in my view, regard that as an epic journey. It’s a really fascinating lifecycle. So initially, the eels will arrive to the coasts of Europe, including Ireland, carried across the ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. This journey across the ocean can take a couple of years. The fish at that age don’t have the power to swim, so they are reliant totally on the currents.
“We trap them close to their point of entry into the freshwater system and we transport them by road and disperse them throughout the Lough. Those fish will remain in Lough Neagh for most of their lives; they will only leave again when they reach maturity, ready to breed, and ready to head off to Sargasso. In the case of male fish, that’s typically between 10 and 12 years that are spent in the freshwater. The female fish will stay much longer, probably 18 to 20 years on average.”
During the season for brown eels, which runs from May to October, eels are caught by fishermen on the lough and delivered to the co-op’s premises next to the river. The season for silver eels is in autumn and they are caught in the weir traps as they attempt to leave the lough in ‘the dark’ (perfect conditions that are linked to the moon and weather) of night.
“There’s evidence of fishing for eels right back to the Bronze Age, but on a commercial basis, obviously it is a lot more recent than that,” says Pat. “On the Lough Neagh and River Bann system, it dates back more than 100 years. The co-operative’s involvement began with the formation of the Fisherman’s Co-operative in 1965… so we’re close to 60 years old. Prior to 1965, the fishing rights would have been owned by a consortium of Dutch and English fish merchants, based in London. Their primary interest was in fishing on the River Bann, particularly for the mature silver eels as they migrate out of Lough Neagh. That raised some issues at the time with traditional fisherman, who live on the shores of the lake, who were being denied access to fishing for eels. When the cooperative acquired a 20% shareholding in that company in 1965, and subsequently bought-out the company in 1972, they set about developing some new markets, but also supplying existing markets that the previous company would have used. Fairly quickly, eel fishing grew to be a significant export industry for Northern Ireland. There would have been, at that stage, well over 100 boats fishing on Lough Neagh. Not as many now, things have changed. It’s probably around 90 or so permit holders, but in any given year, not 100% of those will fish, so you’re probably talking about 50 to 60 boats fishing on a fairly regular basis.”
While all fishing and grading is done in the state-of-the-art facility in Toomesbridge, all processing and smoking is carried out overseas in Holland where there is a huge demand for the product. In fact, 70% of the eels are destined to be sent there, where they will be smoked overnight and on sale the next day. The other market is in London, where jellied eels are still considered an English delicacy. Lough Neagh actually produces just under 14% of all wild eels caught in Europe. Therefore, Lough Neagh Fishing Co-op has held the position as the largest wild eel fishery in Europe for a number of years now. “We’re always very keen to point out that the eels are absolutely wild,” says Pat. “There’s no artificial input in any shape or form. It means that we’re subject to the whims of climate change and weather and water conditions, and all of those things.”
The industry has already seen the effects of climate change and has faced a massive drop in the number of juvenile eels (elvers) who make the migration annually. In the 80s, between six and 18 million juvenile fish used to find their way to the shores, but in 1983, there was a dramatic drop in the number with only 726,000 arriving. Pat explains, “Because we keep very extensive data, we were very quick to notice that there was a significant drop. The fact of the matter is that it never fully recovered after that. The hope was that it was just some sort of temporary blip and things would recover. However, it was a few years later that the rest of Europe began to take notice; the same thing was happening in their systems. This eventually led to what are known as eel management plans [this includes measures to restrict fishing and other human activities that kill eels and other measures related to restocking otherwise known as eel recruitment]. There’s about 115 of these throughout Europe. Each of them applies to local systems. There are three in Northern Ireland, for example.
“Scientists, and all of us in the industry, were scratching our heads wondering what had caused this? The truth of the matter is 35 years later, we still really don’t know. The likelihood is it was a combination of factors, of which changes in the climate is certainly one. Other things like overfishing would also be a factor. You also have pollution, maybe not affecting the quality of the fish, but perhaps affecting the fertility. That could also partly explain why we weren’t getting so many juvenile fish returning.”
Climate change is certainly a critical factor in the sustainability of the industry’s future with factors such as the temperature of the water affecting eels, but maybe more importantly, the change in current direction. “There are issues which presumably, almost certainly, climate change is responsible for, that in the grand scheme of things may not seem like very much, but if you’re relying on a current in a particular direction, in this case, the North Atlantic drift or the Gulf Stream, bringing you to the shores of Europe… if there’s a veering in a direction, albeit slight, that can send fish which are not able to swim in a completely different direction or [cause them to] miss certain river basin systems, such as ours,” comments Pat.
“Essentially, the decline in juvenile eel recruitment is most likely a combination of all of these things. It has had a fairly devastating impact on stock levels throughout Europe. We have spent the last 10-12 years trying to find measures to address that decline so the industries, such as our own, can remain sustainable into the future… but I would be very quick to say first that none of them would work without the cooperation of fishermen. I think therein lies the value of the cooperative as a model. If we’re trying to sustain a viable future, we need to bring the fisherman along with us to understand what we’re trying to do so that they are part of it, they have a vested interest in it.”
Permits and regulations
The co-op have been implementing sustainability measures for the good of the industry for almost 50 years. One of the most effective systems is the quota system, which was introduced in the early 70s. The co-op also operates a permit system so that it’s not, as Pat describes it, “a free-for-all.” There are fairly strict terms and conditions associated with permits, one example being that there is only a limited period that fishermen are allowed to fish for silver eels. However, there is another main measure that Pat feels is vital. “Probably the main measure is a strict regulation that we have on the minimum size of an eel that can be taken from the lough. Not that long ago the statutory position was that you couldn’t take eels below 30 centimetres in length; we operate to a higher standard, to 40 centimetres. Subsequently, the authorities, in this case the Department of Agriculture & Maritime, upped their own standard to match ours.
“We also have controls over who’s actually fishing in the boat so that we can have a fair degree of control in issuing the permits to the people who have a heritage to the fishing – that’s important to us. I could name family names that are involved in eel fishing here and when you look back 100 years, you’ll see the same family names. It’s just the sort of thing that passes from one generation to the next along the shoreline.”
The Lough Neagh Fishing Co-Op Visitor Centre is a brilliant experience for those who want to learn more about the story of the eels, the co-op and, of course, to taste eels also. You must book ahead to take a tour, simply go to loughneaghtours.com.
The quality and taste of Lough Neagh Eels is unrivalled. They feed on the larvae of midges and other nutrients found in the lough. It is the fat content of the fish that makes the ideal for smoking. However, a freshly fried eel is equally as delicious. The trick to cooking them is to heat the pan and place the tail of the fish in, when the natural oils are released, this is what you cook the fish in. Basting it well for 15-20 minutes each side will crisp up the skin and the perfect companion to serve it with is some Northern Irish soda bread.