Making Eel Nets

A journey in traditional net making that spans continents

My eel net journey began in West Africa.

I am a fisherman, who also happens to be a humanitarian. Each winter I work in Mali, West Africa during the long drought season to help build food security in small villages.

This year I took advantage of the long African evenings, without TV and little to do but chat with people, and began the first steps to making eel nets. I actually found webbing in the local market that suited my eel net needs. Malians make throw nets to fish in small rivers and it just happened to be the nylon net webbing I required. The market vendor had never sold 50 lbs of netting in one purchase before. He was surprised to learn that a Westerner was a fisherman too.

An eel net is basically the same shape as a windsock like you’d see at an airport. The cone-shaped net has a large aluminum front ring with six rings of decreasing size at the tail end that give the net its shape. Eels enter the front of the net and pass through a series of holes, called funnels. Each successive funnel opening gets smaller and smaller as the eels traverse deeper into the net. The last hole, once pushed through, closes behind them and even though an eel is ‘as slippery as an eel’, they can not escape. We open the back end of the net to retrieve the catch each day.

I made my eel net design, counted meshes in the netting, and began to cut out the eel net patterns during my down time. I stitched the funnels to the main pattern and then stitched closed the net to make the required eel net tube. I was able to complete the tubes for thirty five eel nets over four months while I was in Africa.

I returned to Canada in February with 50 lbs of eel net tubes in one suitcase. Customs gave me a funny look when I claimed the netting, but otherwise let me through without any issue.

Soon after settling back into life on PEI, I went to see my local welder and ordered thirty five sets of the seven various sized aluminum rings required for each net. I set into stitching the front rings onto the eel nets.

I have had a good few people ask why I set out to make my own eel nets. Many fishermen have lost the art of making their own lobster traps, or hanging their own nets. If time is an issue and money is not, it may make sense to purchase equipment. In my case, I did the math and concluded that what I make fishing eels does not merit the price of buying new nets, as the cash output will take too long to recoup. The largest cost of the net is the labour to make it, not the materials.

It takes about five days to make one eel net. I cannot devote thirty weeks straight to the process, as I am on the water all summer, and have other fishing gear to build. It will take me the next year to finish all 35 new nets, however, I will be saving myself about $15,000.

As my father taught me about fishing, but it applies equally well to many things in life: sometimes it is not about what you make, but what you save.

There are moments when time demands I purchase ready-made supplies. However, most years and with smaller dollar value species like eels, what I save is as important as what I make in fish sales.

Here on PEI and in many places in North America, we have off-shored labour-intensive jobs, at the expense of lost local knowledge. We all have to factor into the business equation what is sustainable over the long run; we can often do tasks ourselves, and sometimes what we save is what makes the bottom line numbers work best.

I am thankful to have had a father to teach me to make nets and build lobster traps. What I save helps with my bottom line and is a skill I can share with others in the industry that want to retain this important local knowledge.