The ESB’s Shannon eel fishery

The wind’s in the north-west — and the eels will be running.

Actually, as I’m writing this in July, they won’t be. But in the autumn, on dark nights, with a flow in the river and a favourable wind, the eels will head down the Shannon en route to the Sargasso Sea. Wikipedia describes the extraordinary lifecycle of Anguilla anguilla here.

In Ireland, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) has statutory responsibility for the fisheries on the River Shannon and on certain other waters. But because of the shortage of eels, the focus nowadays is on “trap and transport” programmes: helping eels to get down to the sea (and young ones to get back up). The eel fishery has been closed completely until 2012 at the earliest; see this news story (and google for others if you like). [Update June 2012: in April 2012 a set of Dáil questions by Frank Feighan TD elicited a considerable amount of information about the Shannon eel fishery. July 2012: here is more Dáil information about eel management.]

If this Google map link works properly (something that experience suggests might be too much to hope for), you should see the lower portion of the River Shannon. The twin towns of Killaloe and Ballina will be near the top of the page and Limerick will be near the bottom, with the river flowing from one to the other. Below Killaloe is the “flooded area” and below that O’Briensbridge on one bank and Montpelier on the other. Just above O’Briensbridge the headrace of the Ardnacrusha power station takes most of the river’s flow; it goes through Clonlara, Ardnacrusha and Parteen before rejoining the river at Limerick. (If you can’t see the headrace, switch from Map to Satellite view.) On the original course of the river, a small amount of water (except in floods) still flows through Castleconnell to Limerick. The places mentioned on this page are Killaloe, Clonlara and Castleconnell.

The survey at Castleconnell

In October 2008 the ESB commissioned a survey of the numbers of eels passing down the original course of the Shannon through Castleconnell. (It may well have surveyed other areas, but I didn’t happen to be in those areas, at those times, with a camera.) The survey was carried out by eel fishermen from Lough Ree, using the ESB’s boat. It seemed to involve laying nets, leaving them out overnight and counting the eels the following morning (again, I wasn’t there the following morning).


The ESB’s steel eel-boat

Passing a traditional wooden cot moored at World’s End


Heading upstream

Mysterious activity. Note the interesting shape of the boat

Returning downstream

Floats supporting the net …

… which is anchored to a wall on the stone quay at World’s End

That was in 2008; in 2009, the fishery was closed, although catching continues for trap and transport, to enable the eels to overcome obstacles like Ardnacrusha.

The eel-nets at Killaloe

The ESB uses a large number of eel-nets on the downstream side of the bridge in Killaloe. All the river arches except one have provision for nets; I presume the one free arch is the “king’s gap” (or perhaps “president’s gap”). Nets can even be used at the navigation arch.

The eel-nets and the walkway below the bridge

The walkway

Access to the walkway

Nets seen from above

Can anyone tell me what the vertical rods are for?

The nets over the navigation arch. I suspect (does anyone know?) that the frame they’re on can be swung down, but that it’s kept up out of the way during the boating season

The nets during the floods of November 2009


There’s a step in the water upstream of the nets

Here it is again

Seen from above

It seems to be caused by rows of vertical metal tines, which may be steering the eels into the nets

The eel packing station at Killaloe

The ESB’s other eel-related installation in Killaloe is perhaps somewhat less conspicuous.

The eel packing house at Killaloe

The eel house from the bridge, with the eel boat and a dory parked outside

The lower floor of the eel house is made up of tanks with mesh sides, which the river can flow through; eels can be kept alive there. There are walkways between the tanks.

You can see the mesh here. The eel-boat is parked on the outside

Inside, a ladder provides access to the lower floor

There is a hatch in the upper floor …

… with a hoist over it

Down the hatch

The lower level

A bucket of eels

Eels in a white bucket


The eel-nets at Clonlara

The ESB also had eel-nets at Clonlara, on the headrace to the Ardnacrusha power-station. There were two sets, suspended from towers: one set above and one below the bridge. A gap was left at one side to enable boats to get through.

The nets from a boat above Clonlara Bridge

The upper net towers seen from the bridge during the floods of November 2009

Buildings, presumably connected with the eel fishery, near the downstream net towers

The downstream net towers during the 2009 floods

I presume that the structure in the foreground is associated with the fishery

The Clonlara nets had not been used for some years, partly because the flow of the current made their use difficult and dangerous.

Current at Clonlara

Passing by a few days ago, I noticed that one of the downstream towers was missing.

One downstream tower has been removed

And one of the upstream towers had gone too. A large crane was at work, removing a steel structure similar to that in the photo above.

The solitary upstream tower

The crane at work 1

The crane at work 2

I understand that the ESB …

… hopes to be able …

… to persuade the eels …

… to reach the sea by the original course of the river …

… via Parteen Villa Weir, O’Briensbridge and Castleconnell

So. Farewell then to the Clonlara eel-nets ((c) E J Thribb)

As usual, I would be happy to hear from anyone who can correct or supplement the information here, or who can provide links to websites on related topics. Please leave a Comment below.

Here is an article from the Irish Times on 10 October 2011. The ESB press release is here. And in March 2012 the Irish Times reported that eel fishermen had failed in their legal challenge to the Conservation of Eel Fishing byelaws.

Here are some links repeated from above. In April 2012 a set of Dáil questions by Frank Feighan TD elicited a considerable amount of information about the Shannon eel fishery and in June 2012 Nicky McFadden TD got more, which you can read here.  This is an update in January 2014.

On a related matter, there is information here about hydroelectric power stations and salmon.

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8 responses to “The ESB’s Shannon eel fishery

  1. It is now time time cease eel fishing in Killaloe. Firstly eel populations have suffered a dramatic decline and should no longer be harvested. Its a nonsense to say that the fishery is fishing for conservation reasons and that eels are released because there is a greater loss with nets than would happen it these eel were allowed to migrate through the power station. Its now time
    to remove this weir which is an eye sore from the heritage bridge in Killaloe

  2. Re: Eel nets at Killaloe Bridge. Are they still in use? Are the nets secured at the bottom? Im trying to find out could a small boat or a swimmer pass safely beneath the nets?

  3. Joe: some of the nets were in use today. As well as the nets, there are also metal structures guiding eels towards the nets. And there is a strong current through the arches. No dwimmer or boater should go anywhere near those aarches at any time, and especially not when the currents are strong. There is a navigation arch, close to the east bank, that has no nets on it. But even there, I would not advise a swimmer to go near it in present conditions. bjg

  4. Pingback: Killaloe eel fishery | Irish waterways history

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