Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Inside the takedown of Europe’s multi-billion pound eel mafia

Eels are one of the ocean’s great mysteries, but populations have been trafficked to the verge of extinction. Now eel-smuggling gangs are starting to get their comeuppance

By Alex Diggins
Friday 12 June 2020
Published on

Herianus Herianus / EyeEm / Getty Images
The goods are stashed in a warehouse on the scruffy outskirts of the Spanish city of Santander. An anonymous building far from the hubbub of holidaymakers on the beach – and from the eyes of the authorities. Inside, it’s dimly lit and quiet. The only sounds are the low hum of electrics and the gurgle of running water. Rows of suitcases line the walls.
The couriers arrive in ones and twos, dressed as tourists to avoid detection. Once at the warehouse, they collect a suitcase and drive to the airport to catch the next plane back to Hong Kong. Hidden from border agents, what they have stashed in their luggage is worth a small fortune. But the groaning suitcases aren’t loaded with drugs or diamonds. Instead these traffickers are smuggling something altogether slimier: European eels.
There is big money in eel smuggling. The illegal global trade in European eels is worth up to £2.5 billion each year. In February this year, Gilbert Khoo, a Malaysian-born seafood trader, was convicted of moving £53 million worth of eels through the UK. Between 2015 and 2017, Khoo snuck 6.5 tons of live baby eels – called ‘glass eels’ – past British border force agents. The eels were caught off the coast of Spain. Khoo then shipped them into the UK and stashed them in a warehouse in Gloucestershire, before flying them out to Hong Kong. There, they were destined for clandestine Chinese farms where they would be reared for dining tables across South-East Asia and beyond.
It has been illegal to move the critically endangered European eel, Anguilla anguilla, outside of the EU since 2010. And even inside Europe, where the transport of European eels and sale of their meat is legal, the trade is tightly regulated. Khoo, though, pleaded ignorance to the authorities: he claimed simply to be a middleman for buying and selling seafood. But, like Al Capone, his operation was undone through shoddy paperwork – an investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) found Khoo had been routinely mislabelling containers of fish. And when NCA agents cracked open one of his shipments at Heathrow Airport on February 15, 2017, they discovered 200 kilos of glass eels hidden beneath a load of chilled fish. Khoo was arrested on February 23 as he stepped off a plane from Hong Kong. He was sentenced on March 6 to a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Since Khoo’s arrest, eel smugglers have grown cannier. “The cat and mouse game between authorities and traffickers has intensified in the last few years,” says Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), and an expert witness at the Khoo trial. Eel traffickers initially transported illegal fish alongside legitimate catch, mislabelling shipments and forging permits. When young, eels look so similar it is impossible without a DNA test to tell the difference between illegal species – like the endangered European eel – and legal fish, such as the short-finned eel. But as law enforcement began to grow wise to these tactics, the smugglers upped their game.
‘Pop-up’ eel stations emerged: disposable properties rented close to where the glass eels were caught so they could be prepared for transport. And traffickers switched from large, easily-inspected containers to portable luggage. Like pet shop goldfish, thousands of writhing glass eels were transported in plastic bags full of water. Airport scanners didn’t automatically flag these bags as suspicious – they looked like bundles of clothes, and security staff were not trained to spot them. The smuggling gangs also realised court proceedings were rarely brought for values less than €50,000 (£45,600). They could stuff suitcases with up to 50,000 glass eel specimens, and usually get away with it.
Until recently, that is. Enforcement has grown tougher. Working with Europol, SEG tracks the number of smugglers arrested during each fishing season, which runs from October to April. This year, 108 were hooked – slightly down on 2018-19 when it was 153, but a big improvement on 2014-15 when only 48 were caught. But these arrests are only “the tip of the iceberg,” warns Kerr. So far, none of the kingpins who control the trade from Hong Kong and mainland China have been netted.
This is very bad news for the European eel. Attempts to breed them in captivity have proved unsuccessful – every eel that ends up in restaurants and supermarkets comes from the same vulnerable wild stocks. And with up to 25 per cent of the glass eel population being trafficked to Asia each year, the trade is deeply unsustainable. It threatens the long-term survival of the species as well as the ecosystems which depend upon them for food. But it also endangers the livelihoods of the farmers, fishermen and smokers who have processed eels for hundreds of years, a vital tradition in Atlantic coastal communities. “If we don’t sort this smuggling out, then the plug is pulled and the water is draining away,” Kerr says.
Police in Portugal inspecting a eel smuggling site in 2018, Credit: Sustainable Eel Group
Humans have eaten European eel for centuries. They can be found carved into the walls of the pyramids in Egypt, pictured on mosaics at Pompeii, and stitched into the Bayeux tapestry. They were once so common that they were used to pay taxes in medieval Britain – the Domesday Book records a debt of 75,000 eels owed by the village of Harmston to Earl Hugh of Chester. Despite this historic importance, their lifecycle remains mysterious. Scientists know the eels breed in spring in the Sargasso Sea – a swathe of the Atlantic bigger than France, Germany and the UK combined. But no one knows exactly when this mating happens, how long it lasts for, or at what depth it takes place. No one has ever seen them at it.
After these obscure nuptials, the eel larvae hitch on prevailing currents to the west-flowing rivers of Europe. Best guesses suggest up to 1.3bn arrive each year. Most end up in the Bay of Biscay – but they have been spotted as far north as Norway. Temperature is the determining factor: eels don’t like water colder than six degrees Celsius. Those which end up in the warmer wetlands and rivers of Portugal and Spain mature in two or three years. More northerly arrivals might take up to half a century. Once fully grown, the eels begin the long journey back across the Atlantic, via the Azores, to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean.
These epic annual migrations went uninterrupted until the mid-twentieth century. But drainage of wetlands, increased water pollution, and Europe’s hydroelectric power stations proved disastrous. European eel numbers crashed between 1980 and 2010, falling to ten per cent of what they were in the 1960s. This drop triggered their designation as a critically endangered species – and brought in legislation banning their export. Yet as their numbers fell, the Asian market for their meat grew. Demand could not be met by the local Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica, which is not endangered, and so unscrupulous suppliers began to illegally import the more numerous European eel.
“It’s a different dimension when you compare European and Chinese production,” says Florian Stein, SEG’s director of scientific operations. Armed with eel farm data analysis and company records, he has tried to map out the extent of Chinese eel aquaculture. He believes there are approximately 900 farms operating in the provinces close to the trafficking hub of Hong Kong. The whole industry is controlled by a few families, he says. And some farms are massive. One has an annual production of 10,000 tons – more than Europe’s entire output. Profits are suitably hefty, too. By SEG’s calculations, a catch of 3,500 glass eels weighing one kilo might fetch €300 (£260) when caught in Spanish and Portuguese waters. But that rises to €1,000 (£870) once they are trafficked out of Europe. And a year or so down the line, by the time the mature eels hit Asian wholesalers and supermarkets, they have a value of €25,800 (£22,400). To break this supply chain “enforcement has to increase,” says Florian. “If the pressure eases, the smugglers will simply find new ways of getting the eels out.”
Suitcases lined up ready for smuggling discovered by Spanish police, Credit: Sustainable Eel Group
Jose Alfaro has been hunting eel smugglers for 10 years. The head of Europol’s environmental crime division started out as a rookie detective chasing smugglers through the winding backwaters of the Algarve. Now he heads up Europol’s Operation Lake, a transnational initiative to tackle the trafficking of endangered species, such as the European eel, in the EU. It’s “a never-ending operation,” he says.
It’s been running since 2016 and involves not only those countries with eel fishing industries – Spain, Portugal, France and the UK – but also places as far afield as Ukraine. With the success of Operation Lake, the smugglers have got wilier. They have expanded through Central and Eastern Europe – and Europol has had to cast its net wider to catch them. “Wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest forms of criminality in the world,” Jose says. “The figures involved are crazy.” Yet Europol has proved so effective that trafficking gangs are turning to other endangered species, like the American eel, Anguilla rostrata, to make up the shortfall. Jose is working with American and Canadian law enforcement to choke their networks and monitor eel meat sold across the Atlantic.
The scale of the trade poses challenges, though. “Eels don’t respect international borders,” notes Kerr. And stopping their trafficking involves co-operation between multiple agencies, from police to customs officials, across numerous jurisdictions. Jose observes: “In Europe, we are bringing this situation under control. But liaison with countries of destination in Asia is vital. If we can communicate effectively, we have a unique opportunity to stop this criminal phenomenon.”
Halting eel smuggling is not only important from an ecological perspective. Trafficking has devastating human impacts too. The same gangs which smuggle eels also push drugs, people and dirty money. And illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is a hotbed for modern-day slavery, tax evasion and fraud, especially in South-East Asia. “Fisheries crime isn’t solely about fish,” confirms Paul Stanfield, Interpol’s director of organised and emerging crime. By Interpol’s calculations, only one per cent of trafficked goods, including endangered species, are seized by authorities. In addition, Paul says, since 9/11 and the decline of state-sponsored terrorism, many terrorist groups have turned to crime for funding – including fish smuggling.
A scan of luggage containing baby eels seized at Frankfurt Airport in 2018, Credit: Sustainable Eel Group
Despite the progress made by law enforcement, implementing new legislation to tackle wildlife trafficking can be ponderous. And corruption is an ever-present threat. “Some of the major players in the trade have huge political power and ability to buy influence,” says Kerr. “It’s very difficult to get at them.” In Hong Kong, smuggling carries a maximum sentence of a HK$10m (£10m) fine and ten years in prison – small fry given the sums to be made from it. Jovy Chan, wildlife conservation manager at WWF Hong Kong, sees greater promise in educating consumers – and putting pressure on corporates to improve traceability. She is working with supermarkets to implement more rigorous labelling and pushing them to conduct spot checks on their suppliers. The DNA tests needed are only HK$200 (£20); the reputational cost from selling illegal species is far higher. She has had some success. PacknShop, a major brand in the city, have established their own eel testing lab at their headquarters. And AEON, a Japanese supermarket chain, have implemented an action plan to take endangered species off their shelves. But she cautions: “Sustainability without full traceability is useless.”
Ultimately, market forces could prove most effective. Covid-19 has rattled global supply chains, including that of European eels. Jovy predicts a future shortfall when this year’s harvest of glass eels should have reached maturity. How the pandemic affects consumer attitudes to eating wild animals – and the wet markets where they are traded – is harder to determine. Each person in Hong Kong consumes an average of 70kg of seafood per capita every year; around the world, the figure is 20kg. That demand will not disappear overnight. But there are signs tastes are shifting. Sales of eel meat replacements in Asian supermarkets, like tofu and pangasia, a plentiful river fish, are rising. And in Europe suppliers have turned to creative solutions – 95 per cent of ‘eels’ eaten in the Basque region are in fact surimi, an artificial eel made of white fish. It even has eyes painted on for full authenticity.
It seems European eel populations are beginning to recover. Fishermen have told SEG that this year’s migration was the biggest in living memory. “Over the last few years, we’ve had real success in combating trafficking,” Florian says. That means more eels in Europe’s rivers, and significantly fewer in hand luggage.
Updated on 15.06.2020: The article has been updated to correct Florian Stein’s job title and the number of years Jose Alfaro has spent combatting eel smugglers