Always keep moving forward

Fish farming in difficult times requires an open mindset based on agility and flexibility. Stef and Gijs Bardoel, young owners of Dutch eel farm Palingkwekerij Bardoel, strive to move forward in the production of their high-quality products.

Stef and Gijs Bardoel, young owners of eel farm Palingkwekerij Bardoel.

Since January 2023, Stef and Gijs Bardoel are the owners of Bardoel eel farm that was founded by their parents, in 1997. There is no doubt that the open mindset of the family and the willingness to take risks to achieve their goals is inherited from one generation to the next. Investments to enlarge and upgrade production capacity were made in 2001, 2011 and in 2021. Mostly all construction works on the farm are done by Stef, Gijs and their father. “Our father is very experienced! He has built at least five eel farming systems, and, in our opinion, he knows in every detail how to build the best system and keep the eels happy”, Stef and Gijs acknowledge.

We need to act now

Back in the 1990’s, eel farming had an uncertain future, and this still is the case. Eel farms need to have access to glass eels for restocking their tanks, but unfortunately catches of glass eel are under pressure. Despite the insecurity of the glass eel supply, Stef and Gijs Bardoel believe that eel farming has a great future. “We are fully aware that if you stand still, you will move backwards,” Gijs Bardoel explains. He continues: “Always keep moving forwards! We cannot prepare for catastrophes. There will always be some way to find viable solutions. We need to act now to possibly hold our position as the second biggest eel farm in the Netherlands, supplying 20 percent of the eel consumed in this country. We invest in upgrades of our farm for you cannot wait till it breaks!”

Stef Bardoel agrees with his brother: “We do our best. We highly support initiatives that are ongoing to support the preservation of European eel in the wild, we produce high quality products, we have a highly specialised RAS farming system with low environmental impact. It can only get better!”

An inspiring job

For Stef Bardoel, going into eel farming was the preferred job scenario right from the start: “I always have imagined that eel will be my life! So, I went to technical school – that is ideal for eel farming. There is a lot of different things to do, and this is inspiring to me.”

Unlike his brother, Gijs Bardoel was not hooked on farming fish when he was a child: “But somehow, during my last two years of agricultural management studies the passion awoke. I worked on the farm in the weekends and during my free time, and I thought ‘Yes! This is indeed an interesting and very diversified industry. I want it!’.”

By now, the farm is operated by Stef, Gijs, their parents and one employee. When meeting Stef and Gijs Bardoel it is obvious that they combine perfectly by working together while each one has his own sphere of interest. Both brothers are taking care of the eel, and of grading them. While Stef has developed his technical skills and focuses on maintenance and modernisation of the RAS installations consisting of nine systems, and on construction works, Gijs’ priorities focus more on the farming and managerial aspects of the farm.

Tranquillity, stability, and cleanliness!

Being asked for the virtues that are key to success in eel farming, the Bardoel brothers say, with a smile: “Tranquillity, stability, and cleanliness! The glass eel batches delivered to the farm must be of good quality. Glass eel come from nature and can bring along some diseases, but usually this is not a big thing. Next, you need to have a good survival of the glass eel and to make them start eating and keep them continuously growing – here, tranquillity is a must. The feed plays a crucial role in this, continuity and stability of the feed are highly important.”

After having reached the appropriate fingerling size, 10-25 % of the glass eels that enter the Bardoel farm are sold for restocking in the wild. “Hopefully restocking helps in the recovery of European eel in the wild,” the Bardoel brothers say. “Science needs to prove that it indeed helps the eel recovery. It will be frustrating if glass eel catches must stop, as this would stop the redistribution of eels to waters that they are otherwise unable to enter.”

Gijs and Stef Bardoel share the impression that the situation of the wild eel is getting better. “But it takes time to prove this”, they say. “We are aware that we cannot go back to the 1980’s situation, where the eel was very common in the freshwater bodies. Nowadays dams and power plants and other constructions that hinder eel migration prevent access to their habitat. So many glass eel are arriving at the coastal areas now – but this has not yet been accepted as a proof of recovery. Also, no decision has yet been taken as on how much is “enough”, unfortunately. The glass eel situation is being monitored along the European coast in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, etc.”

Tasty and healthy

As for any producer of fish, one thing is successful farming, another thing is to have a market for your product. Bardoel eel farm sells live eel to smokeries and whole sellers in the Netherlands that re-sell to smaller smokeries. The Bardoels have some sales to other European markets, too. Also, they have their own traditional smokery and sell smoked eel through the Bardoel on-farm shop, the day-to-day management of which lies in the experienced hands of their mother.

People in the Netherlands do not eat much fish per capita – meat, vegetables and potatoes are the preferred, more traditional dishes. According to Stef and Gijs Bardoel, nowadays the eel, and especially smoked eel, is mostly consumed by the elderly as a delicacy.

Despite traditions, also the younger people show a certain interest in eating eel, the Bardoels inform: “We encourage them to taste, and they love it, they like it! The young generation acknowledge that eel and other fish is healthy and nutritious food, and that eel farming goes hand in hand with low environmental impact. Also, we see pescatarians, i.e. persons incorporating seafood into an otherwise vegetarian diet, as a niche market that can be explored much more.”

Believe in the future

The Bardoels believe in the future: “Eel is a traditional Dutch delicacy with a unique taste. It is a delicious fish that can be eaten responsibly thanks to its sustainable and fully traceable farming method. The Dutch Eel Marketing Fund spends a lot of effort on promoting eel via social media, road signs, events in fish shops, and tv cooking sessions. We eel farmers and the whole eel community must continue to act together and make sure that eel is available.”