Students visit European Parliament to make the case for eel conservation

Photo: Louie Morris

Students from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities have taken their work to the European Parliament as part of a project harnessing creativity to highlight the plight of a critically endangered creature.

The students – from MA Publishing, BA (Hons) Illustration, BA (Hons) Documentary Photography and BA (Hons) English with Creative Writing – supported an event organised by charity the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) to try to raise awareness among MEPs of issues facing the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla). It was hosted by MEPs Ulrike Rodust and Ricardo Serrão Santos and was also attended by Ashley Fox, conservative MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar.

The event included a panel discussion focusing on the illegal trade in and trafficking of the creatures, which is affecting stocks across the continent and hampering conservation efforts. Before the discussion students exhibited their work to MEPs and others taking part, including senior law enforcers and eel specialists from across Europe.

The trip was financed by Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), with a contribution from SEG.

According to SEG, there is a huge market for eels in Asia, but as it is impossible to raise them from eggs in captivity, they are caught in Europe and smuggled in vast numbers.

It calls the illegal business, involving an estimated 100 tonnes or 350 million individual eels per year according to Europol, Europe’s own ivory trade.

SEG says a single suitcase packed full of immature animals can be worth as much as £30,000 to the wildlife-criminal gangs, which supply them on the black market to eel farms in east Asia.

Inspired by this claim, Lecturer in Illustration John Kilburn has teamed up with founder of Guillemot Press Dr Luke Thompson to create A Suitcase Full of Eels. Last year the pair worked together along with students to create a free newspaper, the Murmuring Guillemot, at the Port Eliot Festival. Now, with funding from the University of Plymouth Sustainable Earth Institute via its Creative Associates scheme, the latest project employs narrative and absurdity to make artworks aiming to raise popular awareness of the eel’s ecological, cultural and economic significance.

John took the eponymous suitcase – full of illustrated eels from artists around the world – to Brussels as part of the SEG event exhibition. It was displayed alongside animations, infographics and other artwork created by students.

He said: “There’s an interesting mix of issues. There is obviously a huge amount of money involved, but it’s also a huge environmental issue. Eels are crucial in the foodchain, and are critically endangered because of how far the population has declined.

“People in all countries eat them, and they are culturally important in many places. But they are not what conservationists refer to as a ‘charismatic’ species, so it is the purpose of this project to highlight the ‘charisma’ of eels by using absurdity and narrative.”

He continued: “For a couple of years I’ve been inviting the SEG to come down and give briefs to students on the ILLUS510 second year module, so they have the option of working on something eel-related. Last year a group created a leaflet that SEG liked so much they printed 2,000 copies to use for promotion.

“It’s a way of embedding sustainability in the teaching of illustration in an exciting, fun and proactive way, engaging students with important issues through collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects. Part of this trip to Brussels and working with SEG is showing them the opportunities that can come out of it.”

See @plymouthillustration on Instagram for examples of work from students on the BA (Hons) Illustration course, and @eelsuitcase for more eel artwork.