New ruling states every eel caught will have to be returned alive

In a huge shake-up of the rules governing freshwater angling, eels caught on rod and line can no longer be taken for the table - they must now be returned to the water alive.

The decision, which ends a centuries-old tradition of fishing for food, follows the announcement of proposed new Environment Agency byelaws outlawing the removal of rod-caught coarse fish.

News of the legislation, expected to be effective by the end of April, comes after years of campaigning by Angling Times and its readers, and proves beyond doubt that the EA takes the problem of fish theft very seriously.

The Agency is proposing that anglers only be allowed to take:

15 coarse fish less than 20cm in length each day
One pike of less than 65cm a day
Lake fish with the written permission of the fishery owner
Two grayling between 30cm and 38cm each day

Anglers will also have to return all eels, a watershed development that highlights the species’ shocking decline, with eel stocks having collapsed by as much as 95 per cent since the early 1980s.

“We hope these byelaws achieve the right balance, but anybody objecting to our proposals needs to do so in writing to Defra by January 20,” said senior EA fisheries policy manager Adrian Taylor.

After this final six-week consultation, the EA will formally apply to the Environment Secretary and the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs for confirmation, after which the rules will be brought into play.

“It’s a real milestone to have reached. We got there as fast as we could, even conducting an informal consultation in advance, because we recognise how important the issue of fish theft is to anglers, clubs and fishery owners,” said Adrian.

The change from the current regional system which allows anglers to remove most species - described by many as ‘archaic’ ¬ to one prohibiting the taking of anything but a handful of bait and the  odd pike represents a huge step forward in conservation terms, the need for which couldn’t be clearer where European eels are concerned.

“I’m sure anglers on the Severn do still sometimes take eels for the table, but it’s a changing world and they can’t do it any more - it’s as simple as that,” was Des Taylor’s matter-of-fact response to the news.