In a dark still active eel fishing hut in Åhus at the sandy Baltic coast of Skåne in the south of Sweden (once a part of the Danish kingdom), we meet four off-beat characters in their sixties or seventies. Åhus is the second largest locality in Kristianstad municipality and the Swedish eel fishers’ last outpost.
Åhus is famous for its Swedish eel parties (ålagille) where people come together during August and September to eat smoked eel and drink considerable amounts of schnapps, preferably Absolut Vodka which is produced in the town and exported worldwide.
The Eel Mystery
Eel is a mystery to some, but a delicacy for others and although eel fishing is not directly banned, it is controversial. Eel fishing has become a hot topic that stirs usually calm and subdued Swedes and divides the nation. The eel population in Europe is endangered and it is an urgent need for fishing ban, activists claim.
Related: Scandinavian Eel
There are many great thinkers who have been interested in the eel, the worm-like, tenacious, slightly unfathomable migratory fish from the Saragossa Sea, east of Cuba. Aristotle believed that the eel must have originated from mud, from “the bowels of the earth.” But he was wrong. Sigmund Freud came to the conclusion that the eel must be a hermaphrodite, since he dissected hundreds of them and still did not find any genitals. He was in a way right.
Long Swedish tradition
Eel fishing has a 500-year long tradition in Skåne. Smoked eel on Christmas table and eel feats at Midsummer are part of the local inhabitants’ DNA. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find eels on the menus in the local restaurants. The reason is obvious. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), all human impact on the European eel should be “reduced to, or kept as close as possible to, zero”.
But the inhabitants of the Swedish coastal city are innovative people. Åhus is the eel’s unofficial capital. Eel fishermen from the town supply the rest of the country with party food. Even the Swedish king is said to have visited Åhus incognito to take part in an ‘eel party’.
Ever since back in the 1990s eel was put on the Red List of Threatened species in Sweden. Despite this, there is extensive commercial eel fishing conducted throughout the full life cycle of the eel. Fishing still kills hundreds of tons of eel in Sweden every year. Nonetheless, the fisheries management considers that Swedish fishing for emigrating silver eels has a negligible impact on the population. However, this assumption is based on uncertain estimations.
In 2007, eel fishing was banned in Sweden. However, commercial Swedish fishermen can apply for a dispensation from the ban, but according to a strict EU regulation, they only get a fishing license for two years at a time, and they can only sell the eel in own shops and not let the license be inherited. This has reduced the eel fisherman to an endangered curiosity.
it has become a favorite cause for the activists who are trying to prevent the general population from consuming it and to paint the fishermen who fish them as brutal savages. However, being listed on the red list in Sweden doesn’t mean you are not allowed to consume it.
Eel fishing is a culture
According to commercial fishermen, eel fishing is not an industry that depletes the raw stock, but a culture that cultivates it. During its long life, the eel changes shape several times. From genderless glass eel, to yellow eel, to silver eel. The silver eel is the most well-bred and returns to the Sea of Zaragoza to mate. Before they set out on the 7,000 km long journey home, however, some of them are caught in the nets of Swedish fishermen and end up in a filtered harbor pool where they swim off the slime.
The clock is ticking
No wonder, eel is a mythological creature that has always had a very special place in people’s imagination. To this day. They are also known for their longevity – the oldest eel ever found was 130 years old, living deep in a well, taunting several generations of villagers. However, these thick, meaty, fatty creatures’ ordinary age is between 15 and 20 years old.
The clock is ticking on this tradition and the commercial fishermen, who speak about eel fishing with both sparks in their eyes and some sadness, seem to know that.
The Swedish Eel Fishers’ Last Outpost, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Åhus. Photo: 100 Places To Visit In Sweden