Consider the jellied eel: pale, tripe-like, quivering with the suggestion it might taste as bad as it looks. A dish that divides opinion, yet one close to London’s heart. For centuries the city looked to the Thames for food: eels, cheap and plentiful, were what it found.
Not so today. The European eel is critically endangered, with an estimated population one-fifth of what it was in the mid-20th century. European Union directives have restricted eel fishing on the Thames to a few licensed operators.
But the river, never short of ideas, has another stock for our consideration: the Chinese mitten crab. While recorded eel numbers have fallen, its population of mitten crabs—so named for their furry claws—has exploded, aided by decreasing pollution levels and water flow rates. In the UK they are regarded as an invasive species, extremely adaptive, capable of establishing colonies anywhere; in southeast Asia they are considered a delicacy worth up to $40 (USD) per crab. The mitten crab market is worth $1.25bn a year.
So why aren’t we eating them? Why does the Environment Agency not issue fishing licences for this prized and abundant food source? Why aren’t we casting those tubs of jellified eel into the flames and gorging on succulent, all-you-can-eat crab?
It’s not that simple, explains Dave Pearce, one of the last professional eel fishermen on the Thames. Pearce, who often finds mitten crabs in his fyke nets, is working with the Natural History Museum to determine the risks of legalising crab fishing in the Thames. There are concerns that a recognised market might encourage people to spread the invasive crustaceans elsewhere.
Crab nets could also catch eels, potentially causing further damage to the threatened species. Paul Clark, who researches these crustacea for the Environment Agency, is developing a crab net that would allow eels to slip free. For as long as eel stocks stand to suffer from mitten crab fishing, he says, it is unlikely it will be legalised.
Even if catching the crabs were legal, we wouldn’t all be eating them, he adds. They are valued in Asia primarily because of their sexual organs, a trend unlikely to catch on with British diners.
All good points, but has no one considered how delicious this crab might be?
The uncharitably long British winter delayed this year’s eel fishing season, so Pearce could not furnish me with any of his by-catch crabs. (Like…