THE JOURNEY OF THE EEL
Lough Neagh Eel Fishery is the largest commercial wild eel fishery in Europe. Brown (yellow) eels have two different methods of capture, both under license by Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society, which has exclusive rights to the eel fishing in Lough Neagh. The brown eel fishing season runs from 1st May until 8th January however, weather normally dictates the seasons closure, sometime in October/November. Silver eels can be caught from 1st June until the end of February but typically it’s August before the nets are set at the weirs.
From 1st May each year, Lough Neagh fishermen are permitted to set up to 4 lines in the afternoon, with 400 hooks on each line, for catching eel. They use baited hooks to lure the lovely eel to their line. These self-employed fishermen normally eel fish until late October/early November, after which time the weather becomes too cold and the eel burrows low in the lough for the winter.
Very early in the morning, with a normal start time of 4 to 5am, the fishermen lift their lines by hand from the lough. They store the eels, which are still alive, in barrels pumped with fresh water. The catch is brought ashore and graded, with eels less than 40cm being returned to the lough. The remaining catch is collected in aerated water tanks and transported to the Co-operative in Toomebridge.
During the season a small proportion of fishermen manual draft nets for eels. Hydraulic pot haulers are used to retrieve the ropes attached to the nets, but the net itself must be hauled in by hand, not towed by the boat. Trawling for eels is banned to protect the bed of the Lough. Fishermen often rely on experience and an in-depth knowledge of the Lough to locate the best catches under varying environmental and weather conditions. The live eels are graded and transported as above.
SILVER EEL FISHING
Silver eels are fished at fixed weirs at Toome and Kilrea using coghill nets. This is a night time operation as silver eels only migrate under the cover of darkness. They are placed in holding tanks and are taken to the Co-operative for grading. The Queen’s Gap, an unfished gap, is maintained at the eel weirs to allow a return of silver eels to the Sargasso Sea, for mating and breeding.
EEL INTAKE AT TOOME
All the eels captured either on the lough or at the weirs, are transported to the HQ at Toomebridge for sorting and grading. The brown eel are off-loaded, one tank at a time and each fishermen’s catch is sorted individually, with any deemed too small, being returned to the system.
EEL SORTED & GRADED
Once the initial intake checks have been made and the quantity of good quality eels, above the minimum size of 40cm have been weighed, the batch is then sorted by size, either small or large and stored in aerated water tanks, to reduce the risk of mortality prior to packing.
LIVE EEL PACKING
Later in the afternoon, when all the eels have arrived on site for that day, they are removed from the tanks for packing. The eels are shipped by air, live in perforated bags and cartons with some ice. The packaging has been developed to ensure that they have sufficient oxygen and moisture to keep them in good condition, until they arrive at their destination; London and Netherlands.
As our eels are still live, they are electrically stunned which causes death, before evisceration. The eels are selected for size and the details documented for traceability and quality purposes.
When the eels are removed from the electric stunning machine, they are placed in iced water. They are eviscerated and cleaned to remove all traces of gut and as much blood as possible.
The majority of the eels processed on site are skinned and ready for cooking. The head and skin are removed but the bone remains, eel is notoriously difficult to fillet due to its size and shape . For local customers hoping to smoke our eels at home, we can leave the head and skin on if requested. For traditional frying, customers will cut the eel into smaller cuts. The tail section does not go to waste as it can be used on the warm pan, to lightly oil the surface, before putting the cuts on for frying!
As with all fish, the temperature control of eel is carefully monitored and controlled. During the processing stage, the eel is kept in iced water. Once processed, the eel is placed in baskets with ice to reduce the flesh temperature as quickly as possible.
EEL PACKED & LABELLED
Just prior to packing, the eel is removed from the ice and placed into vacuum pouches. The product is vacuum packed and either labelled as fresh or frozen depending on customer requirements. Fresh packs are placed into the chill at less than 2oC and frozen packs are blast frozen to less than -18oC. Packs are available for sale from site or via a fish wholesaler.
Eel is delicious both fried traditionally or cooked with other flavours and ingredients. Many chefs love cooking with eel, so visit our eel-eat page to find out more information about opportunities of where to try it. – Image credited to Paula McIntyre