Hook shedding and post-release fate of deep-hooked European eel
The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is a commercially and recreationally important fishery target species. In the last decades, the eel has experienced dramatic stock declines and has been listed as critically endangered. To reduce fishing mortality, several European countries have closed the fishery or introduced stricter management measures which increase the likelihood of catch-and-release in the recreational fishery. This study investigated hook shedding mechanisms of deep-hooked, line-cut eels via radiography, and quantified hook shedding rates, post-release mortality and sub-lethal effects in captivity. Eels were caught with four different hook treatments, monitored in a tank for 23 weeks, and radiographed 0, 1, 3, 10, 24, 54, 115 and 163 days after capture. After 163 days, total hook shedding rate was significantly higher for smaller hooks (41.2%) compared to larger hooks (0.0%), and increased with fish length. Post-release mortality rates ranged between 27.3% and 50.0% after 23 weeks (not adjusted for handling and holding) and did not differ significantly between hook treatments. The majority of dead eels showed gastric perforations caused by the hooks leading to internal haemorrhaging and the intrusion of digestive fluids into the body cavity inducing lethal degradation and inflammation of vital organs. Anglers are encouraged to minimise bycatch of eel in countries where eel harvest is prohibited. Anglers targeting eel should use selective and appropriate fishing gears, baits and tactics (e.g. very large hooks, immediate hook setting after a bite) to reduce deep hooking and the catch of undersized eels, ultimately promoting the eel's conservation.