Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is facing a challenge from angling and conservation groups over claims that eels, whose numbers have plummeted in recent years, sold in its supermarkets in jellied form are harvested from local, sustainable sources.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust – the national representative body for anglers – has written to Sainsbury’s boss Justin King CBE asking him to justify how his company can advertise jellied eels beneath a sign claiming “from sustainable sources from around the British Isles” when the European Eel has been a recognised endangered species since 2010 and anglers are required by law to return any that they catch using rod and line.

Unless Sainsbury’s agrees to amend its advertising, Mr Lloyd has threatened to refer the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).  He has also written to Tesco to ask them to clarify the source of jellied eels sold in its stores.  BBC Breakfast, The Guardian and the Daily Mail all ran stories this week highlighting an increase of 35% in sales of jellied eels after supermarkets started selling them outside the traditional heartland of London and the South East.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has published advice on the 30th of November on the European eel: “The status of eel remains critical and urgent action is needed. ICES reiterates its previous advice that all anthropogenic mortality (e.g. recreational and commercial fishing, hydropower, pollution) affecting production and escapement of eels should be reduced to as close to zero as possible until there is clear evidence that both recruitment and the adult stock are increasing.”

Andrea O’Sullivan, Secretary of the National Anguilla Club of eel specialists, has established that Sainsbury’s fish buyers are bound by a policy that prohibits them from buying anything endangered and successfully got eels removed from their London Olympic Festival celebration menu last year.

Andrea O’Sullivan said:
“We are very concerned that jellied eel is being sold by Sainsbury’s to the general public with the misleading perception that is has been sustainably sourced from the British Isles. The European Eel is on the IUCN red list as a critically endangered species and simply cannot be farmed sustainably without depleting wild fish stocks. Any attempt by companies like Sainsbury’s to profit from an endangered species by this approach is short sighted, and we feel the public should be aware of all the facts regarding the sale of eel, rather than be misled by marketing.  In an ideal world we feel that the eel should be withdrawn from sale completely until such time as wild stocks recover to a viable level.”

Mark Lloyd added:
“It beggars belief that a big company like Sainsbury’s could be unaware that the European Eel is in massive decline and has been the subject of conservation measures to promote stock recovery since 2010.  Their in-store claims therefore appear to be misleading as it is impossible for eels to be both locally sourced and sustainable.  I have written to the company pointing out what looks like slippery conduct and have made it clear that the Angling Trust will not hesitate to refer this issue to the ASA should either their product, or their advertising, not be withdrawn.

The Angling Trust has long campaigned in the UK and in Brussels for a complete ban on commercial fishing for eels until there is clear evidence of a sustained recovery in stocks.”