The first commercial catches of eel were recorded in 1914 and until the 1950s the commercial Eel Fishery was based on supplying bait to the rock lobster and long-line shark fisheries. Export of frozen short-finned eels to Europe commenced in the early-mid 1960s.
Production in the Eel Fishery is strongly affected by seasonal factors and drought conditions have resulted in relatively low production for now more than a decade. Some eel production continues to be through stock enhancement, whereby elvers and small eels are stocked into selected lakes for extensive on-growing under natural conditions. In recent years, the commercial catch from stock enhanced waters has been limited by a lack of suitable habitat and/or the availability of elvers.
Currently, most eels are exported frozen to Europe (mainly shortfinned eels) or live to Hong Kong and Korea (mainly longfinned eels). There is a limited domestic market for eel in Australia at present.
Key elements of the Eel Fishery
Short-finned eel, Anguilla australis
Long-finned eel, Anguilla reinhardtii
Eel are harvested in Victorian coastal river basins south of the Great Dividing Range. Short-finned eels are found across the State, while long-finned eels are only found in eastern Victoria
The number, dimensions and mesh sizes of fyke nets are prescribed in regulation. Waterways closed to eel fishing which allows levels of adults escapement for spawning purposes.
Maximum number of licences
The target species in Victoria's Eel Fishery are the short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) and long-finned eel (A. reinhardtii).
Both species spend the majority of their life cycle in fresh water or estuaries but travel to the ocean to spawn once before dying. Spawning is thought to occur in the vicinity of the Coral Sea, although no precise spawning location for either species has been identified. Eggs are thought to be pelagic and hatch after about two days. Larvae are transported southwards along the east coast of Australia where they metamorphose into glass eels and swim into coastal bays and estuaries.
Most short-finned glass eels migrate in the winter and spring, while long-finned glass eels migrate during summer and autumn.
The respective distributions of short-finned and long-finned eel are extensive and there is considerable overlap between the two. Short-finned eels are found from subtropical Queensland to western Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand. Long-finned eels are distributed from far north Queensland to eastern Victoria and Tasmania. Specimens of the Australian long-finned eel have also been recorded in New Zealand.
The fishery focuses on harvesting eel stocks in Victorian coastal river basins south of the Great Dividing Range. Short-finned eels are found throughout the State, but long-finned eels are only found in eastern Victoria.
There are three types of eel fisheries permitted in Victoria: wild harvest, stock enhanced and intensive aquaculture (although no intensive aquaculture is currently taking place).
The fishing method
Commercial fishers are only permitted to use fyke nets to take eels and the number, dimensions and mesh size of fyke nets is prescribed by regulation.
Restrictions on the use of fyke nets includes a mesh size of not less than 15mm and not greater than 39mm, and a maximum of three wings, each of 46m maximum length, 67cm maximum drop and meshes of no more than 32mm. Currently, each licence holder may use up to 50 fyke nets and nets must be cleared at least once every 48 hours.
A fyke net must not occupy more than half of the width of a watercourse and may not be within 5m of another net. Some licence holders are permitted to use oversize fyke nets specifically for targeting migrating sea run eels.
The fishery is managed under the Victorian Eel Fishery Management Plan 2002 and is input managed, with limited entry, gear restrictions and water allocation as the main controls. A new management plan is under development by Fisheries Victoria in collaboration with a stakeholder-based steering committee.
No legal minimum lengths or closed seasons are applied to eel fishing in Victoria.
Wild harvest fishery
The commercial fishery is managed solely by input controls. An Eel Fishery Access Licence (EFAL) is required to take eels for sale or to use commercial fishing equipment in Victorian waters. The maximum number of EFALs is capped at 18.
The key strategy to ensure sustainability in the eel fishery is to limit the number of waters where commercial fishing is allowed. More than thirty percent of the coastal rivers and streams across Victoria are open to commercial eel fishing and most are only open in the lower and estuarine regions. A number of waters are closed due to concerns with the bycatch of aquatic wildlife, particularly platypus, native water rats and water birds.
To further reduce fishing pressure, some key waterways are available for fishing under a single EFAL only. These are known as allocated waters. Larger waters may be allocated to more than one licence.
Stock enhanced fishery
Stock enhancement involves stocking selected lakes and impoundments in western Victoria with elvers and small eels for on-growing before recapture at marketable size. Historically, a significant component of commercial eel production in Victoria came from this practice, but prolonged drought conditions over the recent decade restricted production.
Translocation of eels for stock enhancement purposes is conducted under an approved protocol for the Eel Fishery in accordance with the Guidelines for Assessing Translocations of Live Aquatic Organisms in Victoria.
Only short-finned eels are translocated for stock enhancement and any stocking must be authorised under an Aquaculture (Crown Land – Eels) Licence.
There are currently 11 Aquaculture (Crown Land – Eels) Licences issued to people or companies holding an EFAL.
A small number of Aquaculture (Private Land – Eels) Licences have been issued over the history of the fishery for eel aquaculture in intensive recirculating systems, however none are presently active.