Vincent Larouche covers updates in a new eel trafficking case in Canada for La Presse
“Quebec grilled eel lovers could have eaten a species “in critical danger of extinction” bought from the local trade without knowing it, while a major distributor has just been pinned for smuggling and food fraud. According to American investigative documents consulted by La Presse , a criminal network active on three continents would be involved and poachers would have been paid into a Canadian bank account.”
In the article, SEG Chairman Andrew Kerr is quoted in the following:
“But the news does not surprise Andrew Kerr. “Several gangs were dismantled in Europe, but they continued to hide more and more, setting up temporary stations as far away as Bulgaria and Poland,”
“There are a hundred arrests a year in Europe, but they continue to play cat and mouse.”
Read the article here , translated into English below
Un vaste réseau mondial de contrebande d’anguilles aurait fait son chemin jusqu’à Montréal
Quebec grilled eel lovers could have eaten a species “in critical danger of extinction” bought from the local trade without knowing it, while a major distributor has just been pinned for smuggling and food fraud. According to American investigative documents consulted by La Presse , a criminal network active on three continents would be involved and poachers would have been paid into a Canadian bank account.
In Montreal as well as in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, AED brand frozen grilled eel fillets are all the rage. They are on sale in specialty grocery stores for around $17.
AED is the largest importer and distributor of grilled eel in North America. The company did a golden business thanks to the growing popularity of Japanese-style grilled eel, called unagi .
However, according to an indictment filed in New Jersey recently by prosecutors from the United States Department of Justice, the company’s business model was based on the massive poaching of young European eels, illegally exported to farms. Chinese breeding then reintroduced in America under false names.
“The growing demand for unagi has resulted in unsustainable fishing and, in turn, trade restrictions, behind which a multibillion-dollar international black market thrives,” a US attorney explained in an investigative brief filed in court.
Unable to breed in captivity
There’s a reason eel farms source their supplies from poachers: the snake-like fish can’t breed in captivity. “Only the wild population is there to meet this huge demand,” says Andrew Kerr, president of the Sustainable Eel Group, a European organization dedicated to the preservation of eels.
The reproduction of the eel has fascinated since antiquity. Aristotle believed that these peculiar-looking fish sprang from the bottom of the earth and eventually reached the water. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, claimed that eels do not procreate, but rather give birth to new specimens from shreds of flesh that come off when they rub against rocks. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, dissected hundreds of eels in a relentless and fruitless quest to find their testicles.
Scientists now know that European and American eels develop their sex organs en route to the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic that is their one and only place to spawn. The baby eels, called “leptocephali” then “elvers”, are all born here, follow the currents towards the east coast of the American continent or towards Europe, then go up the rivers inland.
In Europe, wild eel populations have declined by 90% since the 1970s. “The species was already threatened by pollution, dams, local fishing and the obstruction of its migratory route. She found herself the target of Asian breeding farms. It was the coup de grace,” explains Charlotte Nithart, of the French environmental association Robin des Bois.
The European eel is considered “critically endangered”. Small-scale fishing for local trade is now strictly regulated, while any export outside Europe is prohibited.
Chinese breeders have therefore started to source illegally from Europe. The Sustainable Eel Group estimates that Chinese farms supply 85% of the global grilled eel market. “We saw operating methods comparable to those of drug traffickers,” explains Ms. Nithart.
According to US prosecutors, this is exactly what AED would have done. According to the charges filed in court, numerous representatives of Changle Pacific Food farms, a Chinese company that is part of the same group as AED, visited small family fishing businesses in Europe to buy “large volumes” of fish. glass eels which were then smuggled to China via Thailand and Hong Kong.
Documents seized by American investigators show, for example, that as early as 2013, a shipment purchased in the Netherlands was falsely labeled as “live crabs” during the trip to China.
$100,000 in a Canadian bank account
In 2016, representatives of Chinese farms reportedly traveled to Ukraine in the Kyiv region to buy a new shipment from poachers. US prosecutors note in their investigative summaries that eels are very rarely found in the wild this far east on the European continent.
But the news does not surprise Andrew Kerr. “Several gangs were dismantled in Europe, but they continued to hide more and more, setting up temporary stations as far away as Bulgaria and Poland,” he says.
There are a hundred arrests a year in Europe, but they continue to play cat and mouse.
Andrew Kerr, President of the Sustainable Eel Group, a European organization dedicated to the preservation of eel
In the documents produced in the New Jersey court and consulted by La Presse , the American investigators say they have seized evidence showing that the poachers who sold the glass eels in Ukraine asked that the money be paid into a bank account in Canada. Authorities say they have successfully traced a $100,000 payment sent by the Chinese ranchers to a Canadian account, but they are not yet clear who the endangered species suppliers are and what their connection to Canada is.
Still according to the American authorities, the glass eels illegally exported from Europe were then reared to maturity in China. Once cut up and grilled, the adult eels were shipped to America with fraudulent labeling: AED claimed that they were American eels, like those fished in the Bas-Saint-Laurent, and whose movement is a little less restricted by regulation.
The charges that have just been brought in New Jersey against AED and eight individuals linked to the company relate specifically to six containers of eel seized by US authorities upon arrival at the port. These contained almost exclusively European eel ( Anguilla anguilla ) falsely labeled as American eel ( Anguilla rostrata ), they say.
During the period covered by the US investigation, between March 2013 and July 2017, AED brought 138 containers of eel imported from China into the United States, with a resale value of approximately $160 million, according to the prosecutors.
The US investigation does not cover containers of eel exported by AED to Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Environment Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency were unable to comment on Friday.
An “extremely lucrative” activity
Other court documents filed in New York and seen by La Presse , however, show that in 2008, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency blocked eight containers of eel shipped by the company to Vancouver, as part of a 2.25 million US contract for distribution in Canada. The Agency had detected high levels of nitrofurans and phenicols, two antibiotics, in eel meat. It had also prohibited that the company’s products be presented as “without MSG” and of “premium quality”.
Samples of AED eel fillets found by La Presse in a shop in Chinatown in Montreal show, however, that the company did not even always bother to tamper with its labeling: some packages are simply identified as European eel ( Anguilla anguilla ), although this species cannot be exported outside of Europe legally.
The problem is that the consumer may not be aware of the deception. We assure him that everything is fine, it comes from artisanal fishing, it is fished in a sustainable way. We don’t tell him that what he has on his plate has been poached in Europe.
Charlotte Nithart, from the French environmental association Robin des Bois