The eel has always been a prized feature of different culinary traditions across Europe, from the White Sea to the Black Sea. Traditionally it has been reared through extensive breeding that consists of keeping eels captive in ponds. Italian valliculture has long been the centre of gravity for eel production in Europe. The species is growing scarce, however. It is on the Red List of seriously endangered species put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and a European recovery plan for eel was put in place in 2007. Since attempts to reproduce eel in captivity have been unsuccessful so far, aquaculture production currently relies on catches of immature fish that are ongrown in intensive rearing installations using recirculation systems, primarily in the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy.

European eel. © Scandfish

Latin nameAnguilla anguilla
Production (EU-27) – 8 164 t (2007); 97 % of global production.
Value (EU-27) – EUR 73 million (2007).
Main EU producer countries – Netherlands, Denmark, Italy.
Main producer countries worldwide – Idem + China, Japan.


The eel does not reproduce in captivity. Young eels only remain in rivers, lakes and ponds up to the juvenile stage of development. When they reach sexual maturity (6 to 12 years for males and 9 to 18 for females), they return to their one and only birth place: the Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida (USA), where they spawn and from which they will not return.

Their larvae remain in the Sargasso Sea one to two years and are then carried by the Gulf Stream to Europe’s coasts, a journey that takes 200 to 300 days. The young eels reach southern Europe around early winter and arrive in the north at the start of the following summer. They then develop into glass eels, small transparent eels 6 to 12 cm long. They live in estuaries where they feed on plankton and then gradually colonize rivers, lakes and ponds where they develop into yellow eels.


Young glass eels are caught in the estuaries of Portugal, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. This fishery is regulated under the 2007 European recovery plan, which requires that a large proportion of glass eel catches (60 % from 2013) must be set aside for wild ecosystem restocking programmes.

When delivered to fish farmers, the glass eels spend weeks in quarantine and are treated for any diseases that may be detected. They are fed natural foods (e.g. fish eggs) and are gradually weaned to a paste made of fishmeal and fish oil. When they weigh 5 g, they are transferred to juvenile rearing tanks where they are fed pellets of fishmeal and vegetable extracts.


When the eels weigh 50 g, they are transferred either to extensive breeding tanks or to large intensive breeding tanks fitted with a recirculation system. In both cases, they are fed dry pellets made of fishmeal and vegetable meal.

Eels present the disadvantage of growing at extremely variable rates from one individual to the next, so they have to be regularly graded so that similar sized individuals can be grouped in the same tanks. It takes two to three years to obtain adult-size specimens ready to be marketed or placed back into the ecosystem. Indeed, fish farms play an essential role in restocking rivers and streams, under scientific supervision.


Found in all European cuisines, eels are consumed in various forms and prepared according to countless recipes. After slaughter, the eels are sent to a processing unit, often located at the farming site, where they are cleaned and cut up, then sold fresh or prepared (smoked, marinated, cooked, in sections, filets, preserved or frozen).