1. The objective was to explore the regulatory mechanisms underlying the numerical dynamics of a river stock of European eel Anguilla anguilla based on a purely observational study. We used a 21-year data set on the Rio Esva (Asturias, northwestern Spain) stock of eels, encompassing eel density at an estuary site and at nine sites distributed among three tributaries selected to differ in the distance from the tidal limit and fishery data on glass eels from the nearby Rio Nalón estuary.
2. The abundance of glass eels and estuarine and in-stream densities declined simultaneously over a 15-year period. However, following a historical minimum in the abundance of glass eels around the year 2000, the density continued to decline in the estuary whereas density in the streams began an increase that has continued to the present.
3. In-stream cohort mortality rate (Z) varied from 0.0016 day−1 to only 0.0003 day−1 (on an annual basis from 0.57 to 0.099 year−1). The negative effects of intra-cohort and inter-cohort densities on mortality rate emphasized the responses of the riverine stock to compensatory density-dependence. As a consequence, the number of eels surviving to commence the silvering stage was similar in magnitude in the strongest and weakest cohorts.
4. These results suggest that, even if the low abundance of glass eels persists, in-stream density may increase towards a stable value regulated by in-stream density-dependence.