A PETITION launched by a county fishery organisation calling for an end to the commercial exploitation of endangered baby eels has been handed to the Prime Minister.

The document was handed in at Number 10 Downing Street by the Golden Valley Fish and Wildlife Association with support from the Angling Trust and other fishery organisations.

The petition was launched in response to populations of the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, declining by 95% in recent decades and called on Defra and the Environment Agency to stop licensing the commercial export of endangered eels, which are a delicacy in some parts of the world.

Ian McCulloch, of the collaborative Herefordshire Eel Project, said: "This petition must be heeded because it carries the signatures of highly respected local, national, and internationally-recognised fisheries and conservation professionals.

"We have been campaigning to stop this unsustainable exploitation for years, but we are running out of time. All the signatories on our petition are agreed that in order to save the eel from extinction in our rivers, an immediate precautionary closure on juvenile eel exports is urgently required – before it is too late."

Campaigners state that eels are a vital part of river ecosystems, providing food for birds, other fish and animals such as otters.

Scientists believe that eels are spawned in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean before migrating on ocean currents to Europe where they grow into adults in rivers and lakes.

However, very little is known about their lifecycle and the cause of their population collapse. In that context, the campaigners believe that a precautionary approach should be adopted and all commercial exploitation should cease.

The Herefordshire Eel Project has been restocking eels to the River Dore from elvers raised in ponds to try and help restore populations in rivers which once ran thick with elvers before the population collapse. There has been a marked increase in eels captured in Environment Agency electrofishing surveys as a result of their efforts.

However, the volunteers involved in this project are frustrated that many tonnes of elvers are still being harvested for export. Although some of the eels are used for re-stocking, many are grown on for commercial gain.

North Herefordshire MP Bill Wiggin added: "I was proud to help this petition get to the heart of government. These threatened eels have been an important part of our environment and countryside for millennia. They clearly need all the help we can give them."