“Welcome on board,” exclaims Max. Or was it Mats? We are mounted on top of a tractor-trailer, space usually probably reserved for fishing nets and crates. We are headed towards one of the 30 still active eel fishing huts, scattered along the sandy Baltic coast of Skåne in the south of Sweden, the part that used to belong to the Danish kingdom.
In charge of this particular hut are twin brothers Max and Mats Svensson, off-beat characters somewhere in their early 70s, who are more than happy to take us along for the ride. Visitors are scarce these days, not only because the eel fishing season is slowly coming to an end but also because in recent years the whole thing has become highly controversial. A hot topic that stirs usually very calm and subdued Swedes and divides the nation.
A part of Swedish Dna
Eel fishing has a 500 year long and colorful tradition here in Skåne; smoked eel on Christmas table and eel feats at Midsummer are part of the local inhabitants’ Dna as much as picking apples and hunting mallards. But as opposed to ubiquitous apple juice and wild birds featured prominently in top restaurants, you will have a hard time finding eels on the menus. Not even in restaurants in Stockholm. Or especially not there.
Ever since back in the 1990s eel was put on the Red List of Threatened species in Sweden, 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. Indeed, the Red List is an instrument measuring the conservation status of individual species. It is useful when it comes to prioritizing between conservation measures, and it supplies data necessary for the work towards the fulfillment of the Swedish Environmental Objectives. Eel fishing is extremely regulated - only fishermen with an official license can fish them, which amounts to 200 licenses in total, only very small artisan fishermen, banned for the general public and banned for big commercial operations. And if eels are smaller than 70 centimeters they have to throw them back. Every single eel is caught and reported. And fishing takes less than 5% of Sweden's eel mortality, according to several researchers.
Being listed on the red list in Sweden doesn’t mean you are not allowed to consume it, it’s more of a warning, but for activists is all the same, explains Swedish food journalist Mattias Kroon, a local from Skåne. “Never mind that it’s done in the most ethical and sustainable way … All the facts are there,” says.
Daniel Berlin, who is running a well-known 2 Michelin star restaurant Daniel Berlin Krog in the nearby Skåne-Tranas, nods silently. He is a hunter, he puts game regularly on the menu and serves up even mallard tartar, his entire tasting menu is based on strictly local produce. Skåne on a plate, everything from cod to lobster, from wild boar to colostrum. But no eel. “No way. I would love to serve it, I think it’s a fantastic product, but I cannot risk having my restaurant windows broken and walls smeared with paint,” tells.
The Eel Academy
He’s not alone. You won’t find one fine dining restaurant with eels on the menu. Demand, in general, is now tiny, partly because of these pressures. You will however still get them, in all shapes and forms, in one of these fishing huts along the 40 kilometers of sandy coast. Eel parties, as they are called, are one of the highlights of Skåne’s social life, even though not really advertised anymore, because of the controversies.
They start on August 10th, coinciding with Midsummer solstice, and they last for exactly two months, until October 10th. There’s singing, there’s aquavit and vodka (the saying goes you need to down 1 centiliter of strong spirit per 1 centimeter of eel) and there’s eel, of course. In all shapes and forms – smoked, baked, fried, boiled.