Abstract Recreational specialisation theory was coupled with a discrete choice experiment to understand eel, Anguilla anguilla L., angler’s heterogeneity in their reaction to regulatory changes and the associated welfare changes. Differently specialised eel anglers exhibited distinct preferences for catch variables and eel angling regulations. All anglers preferred slightly to moderately stricter regulations than are currently in place; however, such policies particularly benefited casual eel anglers. In contrast, advanced eel anglers would be most penalised by highly restrictive regulations as indicated by substantial reductions in economic welfare. Aversions to stricter regulations found for advanced anglers contradicted predictions from specialisation theory. From an eel management perspective, the implementation of some simple tools such as increased minimum-size limits will reduce angling mortality on eel and simultaneously increase the welfare of anglers. By contrast, highly restrictive eel angling regulations will result in considerable economic welfare losses of several million € per year for northern Germany alone.