Photo: Line Reeh

Danish eel expedition sets sail for the Sargasso Sea

Marine research
On Friday, 28 February 2014, the biggest marine research vessel in Denmark—Dana—set sail from Hirtshals in North Jutland, bound for the Saragasso Sea off the coast of Florida. On reaching their destination, Danish researchers will investigate the relationship between climate-related changes in the eel’s spawning grounds and the sharp decline of the eel in Europe. The expedition is scheduled to last for two months.

Headed up by DTU Aqua, the Danish Eel Expedition 2014 involves leading experts from a range of Danish and international universities. Together, the more than 20 research projects covered by the expedition are intended to plug the gaps in our knowledge about the breeding habits and early life of the valuable and critically endangered eel. DTU’s marine research vessel Dana has been chosen for the voyage.

“On account of the dramatic decline in numbers of the European eel over the past 30 years, it has become crucial to determine how the life cycle of the eel is impacted by people, environmental conditions and climate change,” relates Peter Munk, Senior Research Scientist at DTU Aqua and the man in charge of the voyage.

A distinctive feature of the eel is that it spawns far from its nursery grounds in Europe, requiring the eel larvae to ride the ocean currents for their 6,000-kilometre trip back across the Atlantic. Today, the number of young eel returning to the coasts of Europe is just 2–10 per cent of the quantities seen in the 1970s. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the eel to its list of critically endangered species.

According to Anders Bjarklev, President of DTU, the expedition is fully in line with the university’s commitment to developing its life science activities—a field that constitutes an increasingly important part of DTU’s business.

“We are delighted to be leading an initiative such as this. It focuses the power of Danish marine research on an area in which Denmark has traditionally led the world, and the accumulation of new knowledge is sure to help reinforce both our understanding of the natural life cycle of the eel, and developments in the area of eel farming,” he says.

Eel farming not yet possible
In addition to charting precisely where the eel spawn, and how this interacts with—and is affected by—climate-dependent fronts and ocean currents, the researchers will be attempting shed light on issues such as why the eel spawns in the Sargasso Sea, which route the eel larvae take back to Europe, and what they feed on during their long journey.

Lack of knowledge about the needs and diet of the eel larvae is currently responsible for a significant bottleneck in the work to breed eel larvae at farms in Denmark.

The route
28 February: Departure from Hirtshals
14 March: Arrival in Bermuda, where the Danish crew of researchers will board.
15 March–6 April: First period of fieldwork, from Bermuda to Bermuda
7–23 April: Second period of fieldwork, from Bermuda to the Azores
5 May: Dana returns to Hirtshals.