Wed, 09 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Tiny eels become more expensive than caviar

Julie Fraysse, Agence France-Presse/Bordeaux

Baby eels, transparent, and not much bigger than matchsticks, have become more expensive than caviar in France, where they are slowly disappearing from the menus of gourmet restaurants because of huge demand in Asia.

"The prices have risen so much this year that I'm not offering them to my customers any more," said Ramuntxo Corde, a restaurateur in Ciboure, a French village on the Atlantic close to Spain.

This year, the delicacy known in most English-speaking countries as glass eels, have topped 900 euros per kilo. To savor 100 grams of glass eels cooked in olive oil with garlic and peppers, gourmets must shell out around US$130 dollars.

In 1964, a kilo of glass eels cost the equivalent of just 3.5 euros. But by 1997, the price had risen to 225 euros, and has been rising ever since.

"They've become 'white gold' and they may disappear from menus definitively, because nothing justifies selling them at this price," said Jean Pierre Xiradakis, who has not served them at his renowned restaurant, La Tupina, in the big southwestern city of Bordeaux for the past two years.

The eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, a five-million-square- kilometer body of slow-moving seaweed-covered water in the Atlantic Ocean between the West Indies and the Azores.

They then take nine to 11 months, using the Gulf Stream, to traverse the 6,000 km to France, where they swim up estuaries and into the nets of waiting fishermen.

The fishing season lasts from Nov. 15 to April 15.

"The price of glass eels is soaring mainly because of the demand in Asian countries," said Gilbert Pinchon, a professional fisherman on the estuary of the Gironde River, close to Bordeaux.

Live glass eels are exported to China, where they are farmed and sold as adult eels, notably to Japan, where eels are regarded as a delicacy. Northern Europeans also buy them to farm.

"Some 60 percent to 80 percent of the glass eels are exported to Asia and northern Europe at the moment -- the local market is secondary," said Eric Feunteun, a professor at the University of La Rochelle, north of Bordeaux, who is an eel expert.

At the same time, he said, the eels are becoming rare in France, mainly because the number of suitable habitats is dwindling.

In some cases marshes have been drained, in others, dams are making it difficult for the eels to swim up the rivers, he said. "When the eels return to the sea, they have problems passing the electricity turbines,' Feunteun said.

Pinchon warned: "Other fish are becoming equally rare -- there'll be none left soon in the Gironde estuary if it keeps on receiving insecticides and weedkiller."

Feunteun, who also heads the local seashore and environment institute, added: "Fishermen are the scapegoats, but fishing of glass eels is not the only reason for the decline of the species.

"In some places, there is overfishing, but in others, if the fishing was banned, we would deprive ourselves of information about the species which the fishermen give us, and it would be hypocritical solution."

What is needed, he said, is a Europe-wide study of the causes of the decline in numbers.

"Many professional fishermen are prepared to go along with shorter fishing seasons to preserve the species, but the authorities need to control poaching," Pinchon said.

juf/hn/jkb/jmy AFPLifestyle-France-Asia-food-fish AFP

GetAFP 2.10 -- MAR 4, 2005 11:58:50