Assessment of the quality of European silver eels and tentative approach to trace the origin of contaminants – A European overview

Bastien Bourillon, Anthony Acou, Thomas Trancart, Claude Belpaire, Adrian Covaci, Paco Bustamante, Elisabeth Faliex, Elsa Amilhat, Govindan Malarvannan, Laure Virag, Kim Aarestrup, Lieven Bervoets, Catherine Boisneau, Clarisse Boulenger, Paddy Gargan, Gustavo Becerra-Jurado, Javier Lobón-Cerviá, Gregory E. Maes, Michael Ingemann Pedersen, Russell PooleNiklas Sjöberg, Håkan Wickström, Alan Walker, David Righton, Éric Feunteun

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The European eel is critically endangered. Although the quality of silver eels is essential for their reproduction, little is known about the effects of multiple contaminants on the spawning migration and the European eel management plan does not take this into account. To address this knowledge gap, we sampled 482 silver eels from 12 catchments across Europe and developed methods to assess three aspects of eel quality: muscular lipid content (N = 169 eels), infection with Anguillicola crassus (N = 482), and contamination by persistent organic pollutants (POPs, N = 169) and trace elements (TEs, N = 75). We developed a standardized eel quality risks index (EQR) using these aspects for the subsample of 75 female eels. Among 169 eels, 33% seem to have enough muscular lipids content to reach the Sargasso Sea to reproduce. Among 482 silver eels, 93% were infected by A. crassus at least once during their lifetime. All contaminants were above the limit of quantification, except the 1,2-bis(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy)ethane (BTBPE), Ag and V. The contamination by POPs was heterogeneous between catchments while TEs were relatively homogeneous, suggesting a multi-scale adaptation of management plans. The EQR revealed that eels from Warwickshire were most impacted by brominated flame-retardants and agricultural contaminants, those from Scheldt were most impacted by agricultural and construction activities, PCBs, coal burning, and land use, while Frémur eels were best characterized by lower lipid contents and high parasitic and BTBPE levels. There was a positive correlation between EQR and a human footprint index highlighting the capacity of silver eels for biomonitoring human activities and the potential impact on the suitability of the aquatic environment for eel population health. EQR therefore represents a step forward in the standardization and mapping of eel quality risks, which will help identify priorities and strategies for restocking freshwater ecosystems.
Original languageEnglish
JournalScience of the total environment
Publication statusPublished - 15-Nov-2020

Thematic List 2020

  • Water

Thematic list

  • Fish

EWI Biomedical sciences

  • B280-animal-ecology

Taxonomic list

  • freshwater eels (Anguillidae)


  • fisheries policy


  • laboratory analysis


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