A Voice for the Eel

Much about the life of the eel remains a mystery. We do know that eel reproduce at great depth, in seawater, but no human has ever seen how it actually happens. We know that adult eels migrate from freshwater to the sea, before swimming around 6,000 km to their spawning ground in the Sargasso Sea, and that eels are found all across the Netherlands. We also know that population numbers have fallen alarmingly since the nineteen eighties. The inland migration of elver has now fallen to less than 1% of its original level. Overfishing, migration barriers and climate change have been identified as the main causes of this fall in numbers. International eel smuggling is another major problem. On 6 December 2019, the Volkskrant newspaper featured the headline: ‘The latest golden bonanza for smugglers: the eel. Across Asia, these fish are now worth more than silver, ivory and caviar.’

Amsterdam, the city where seawater and freshwater converge, straddles one of the key migration routes for the eel. The locks and weirs form a massive obstacle on the animal’s migratory route. Many are injured or fall prey to humans and other animals. The people of Amsterdam have for many years shared a close bond with the ‘typically Dutch’ eel; just like clogs, windmills and herring, smoked eel is a historical Dutch tradition. In addition to all these factors threatening the eel, a whole raft of environmental measures has been introduced by organisations and individuals in their efforts to save the species. Effectively, Amsterdam is the location of constant negotiation between eels and humans.

Are the people of Amsterdam aware of the underwater life in their city environment, or of the close ties between the city and the sea? Do we truly recognise the eel as being part of the population of Amsterdam? With our programme A Voice for the Eel, we are calling for (renewed) interaction with this animal that on the one hand is familiar to us, but about which we in fact know so very little.

Starting in the summer of 2020, the Embassy of the North Sea will be working on this North Sea case together with a team of specialists including landscape architect Thijs de Zeeuw, marine biologist Maarten Erich and artist Sheng-Wen Lo. We will specifically be focusing on the interaction between the eel, politics, the infrastructure and the many other factors that influence life underwater. The aim of the case is to gain a greater insight into the mind and life of the eel, from a range of artistic and scientific perspectives, that will in turn deliver real designs and policy proposals aimed at better representing the animal in Amsterdam.