Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

BBC Countryfile investigation exposes black market in illegal exports of protected eels

BBC Countryfile investigation exposes black market in illegal exports of protected eels

– 350million live baby eels said to be illegally smuggled to Asia each year-


An investigation on BBC One’s Countryfile (Sunday 16 June, 19:00-20:00) has exposed international dealers looking to illegally export one of the UK’s most endangered species – European eels. Gangs with suspected links to organised crime are said to be smuggling around 350 million live baby eels – or ‘glass’ eels – every year to Asia, where they are farmed and sold as a delicacy. The size and scale of the black market has been compared to the smuggling of hard drugs, like heroin and cocaine.
The illegal eel trade has previously been focused on stocks in France and Spain, but the Countryfile investigation reveals that smugglers have now turned their attention to the UK, where glass eels can only be caught by licensed fishermen. It’s estimated that the number of European eel has fallen by more than 90% in the past forty years. Today they are protected as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They are also named on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Countryfile presenter, Joe Crowley posed as a UK fisherman who had legally caught the eels on the River Severn in Gloucestershire, and posted an advert on an online trading website, offering live eels caught in the River Severn for sale. He was approached by Chinese and Russian buyers and a UK exporter who were prepared to pay up to seven times the normal catch price if the eels could be sent out of the EU, despite an export ban in place since 2010.
One buyer from China offered more than £1,000 per kilo for the eels to be shipped to Malaysia, despite acknowledging that the export would be illegal. The current price for eels bought and sold legitimately within the EU is about £150 per kilo. Another buyer from Russia said he was prepared to alter paperwork to move the eels out of the EU. He asked for the catch to be sent to Lithuania legally where he would then arrange for the eels to be moved over the border to Russia.
The team was also approached by a UK-based commodities trader who said he had a client in Asia who was looking for glass eels to be exported to South Korea. In an email to Countryfile’s undercover investigations team, he said:  “I could arrange for someone who is based in London to pick up if the price is right.” When later confronted by the programme, the dealer said he knew that it was illegal to export eels, that he did not have a buyer in South Korea and that he was only “speculating”. He added that he had never exported glass eels and had no intention of doing so.
Andrew Kerr, of the Sustainable Eel Group, a conservation organisation working to protect European eels, said the illegal trade in glass eels was estimated to be worth about £3bn a year. Mr Kerr told Countryfile: “It’s the most trafficked animal by number and by value. It leaves here at one Euro each and then one year later, having been grown on in the 900 eel farms of inland China, it’s worth 10 Euros – and that’s pretty tempting. This is the greatest wildlife crime on the planet.
But campaigners are concerned that a lack of monitoring is allowing glass eels to be moved between EU member states and beyond, with few traceability checks enforced or records kept.
Ian Guildford, of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, said it was often hard to convince other enforcement agencies to take the crime seriously. He told Countryfile: “I think we need a greater understanding of what the problem is. This is major crime and, once we can get people to understand the severity of the problem, then we might get somewhere.
The full investigation features on Countryfile on BBC One at 7pm on Sunday 16 June and will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.


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