Science - February 17, 2010

Breeding Eels in Africa

Imares is to provide advice on breeding eels in Madagascar, with the aim of promoting the sustainable exploitation of a healthy eel population.

Glass eels at an experimental fish farm in Madagascar
Africa is going to export eels.
That is, if it is up to the Ripple Fish Company. Under the supervision of scientists from Imares, Ripple Fish wants to breed eels on a large scale in Madagascar. The company has already carried out tests with glass eels on a small scale, and is now building a large breeding facility. Oliver Schneider, an Imares fish breeding specialist, negotiated a contract of 1.7 million Euros, which was signed this month. Imares will contribute knowledge about sustainable breeding methods and ways of exploiting the African eel. 'We facilitate; the company is responsible', explains Schneider.

Dutch scientists are determined to prevent an eel crisis at all costs. The species has been decimated in Europe, partly because glass eels have been overfished for breeding purposes. 'We are not going to sit and watch it go wrong and then explain why it went wrong', says Willem Dekker, an eel expert who is closely involved in the African eel venture. 'We can learn a lot from our experiences in Europe.'
 Schneider too is aware of the dangers of overfishing this last relatively unscathed eel population. 'The African eel has not yet been overfished and it must stay that way. We don't want a repeat of the European situation. Besides optimizing breeding, attention will be paid to fish food and sustainable waste disposal. Schneider: 'We still know very little about the African eel. We shall first have to focus on basic breeding practices such as optimizing temperature, feed, water flow, density and of course animal welfare.' Because all activities, including building fish farms, fishing for glass eels and processing the end product, are done locally, the local population benefits from project.
Dekker thinks there is tremendous potential, especially since the African eel is a champion when it comes to growth. Glass eels weighing less than 1 gram grow into giants of 1 to 2 kilos within six months. The European eel takes at least two years to do that in a heated fish tank.

Good Intentions
Eel expert Dekker is enthusiastic about the project. 'It could be a great thing' he says. On the other hand, he realizes that Imares is exporting knowledge which could lead to the same deterioration in the eel population as we have seen in Europe. Global demand for eels is enormous so there is a danger that this last intact eel population could be destroyed. 'Ripple Fish has a sound businesslike approach but it also has good intentions and some idealism', says Dekker. 'Besides, nature conservationists and development organizations are watching this project with eagle eyes.'