Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Le Monde: The traffic in troubled waters of glass eels

“After two special years, marked by disrupted air links, poachers want to recover, urges Michel Vignaud, in charge of migratory police and fisheries regulations at the French Biodiversity Office (OFB). Asian demand is strong, so we can expect some form of “catching up” in trafficking. “

SEG welcomes the Le Monde article by Thomas Saintourens describing the latest eel developments in France. Adding the context that many eel farms in SE Asia and China are empty and desperately short of glass eel. As 85% of eel aquaculture production (some 240,000 tons) is produced in this area, SEG is expecting a huge trafficking pressure to fall on European Eel. Demand could easily reach 200 million glass eels.
Read the full article in French here 
Article translated into English below

Le trafic en eaux troubles des civelles

Alors que son exportation est interdite hors Union européenne, l’alevin d’anguille, en danger d’extinction, est l’objet d’un intense braconnage à destination de l’Asie. Selon les autorités, le mode opératoire du trafic ressemble de plus en plus à celui de la drogue.

The traffic in troubled waters of glass eels

A simple trio of “tourists”, three friends on a trip to discover Europe; This is how Guohong L. (52 years old), Fenghuang C. (50 years old) and Yang Z. (32 years old) defended themselves against French investigators intrigued by the contents of the trunk of their car. On board their second-hand Seat minivan, stopped on the night of March 16, 2019 during an ordinary customs check on a road in Ariège, the three Chinese were not alone. Several million eel fry, called elvers, similar to small gelatinous spaghetti, swarmed in twenty-three sachets filled with cool water. In total, 101.24 kilos of illicit merchandise, the selling price of which can reach, in China, 4,000 euros per kilo.
Very curious vacationers that these three men traveling under false names with 3000 euros in cash. During their hearings, no one remembers the cities visited. Not one can justify the purchase of six suitcases and 100 kilos of ice cubes. Neither their multiple trips back and forth to Spain or their nocturnal forays along the shores of rivers full of fish.
Read also: A vast traffic of glass eels estimated at 18.5 million euros dismantled in France
At the end of the investigations carried out by the Central Office for the Fight against Attacks on the Environment and Public Health (Oclaesp), “tourists” appear in a different light. That of a team of traffickers made up of a driver, a trader and a logistician, all from Putian, a city in Fujian province famous for its eel fattening ponds. Guohong L., the most senior of the group, was already wanted by the Portuguese police. Spotted at Lisbon airport, he coordinated the transit of “mules” loaded with this white gold to Asia.
The Bordeaux Criminal Court found the three men guilty of international trafficking of protected species in an organized gang on February 5, 2021. Five-year prison sentences, three of which were suspended, were handed down to the two main coordinators. A first in the fight against the illegal market for this endangered fish, estimated at several billion euros per year according to the European association Sustainable Eel Group. Seasonal traffic, modeled on the dates of legal fishing. The 2021-2022 campaign, launched this November, promises to be under high tension.
Six hundred licensed fishermen
“After two special years, marked by disrupted air links, poachers want to recover, urges Michel Vignaud, in charge of migratory police and fisheries regulations at the French Biodiversity Office (OFB). Asian demand is strong, so we can expect some form of “catching up” in trafficking. “
From the Basque Country to Vendée, fishing for these translucent fry of less than 12 centimeters will be limited this winter to a quota of 65 tonnes, shared between some 600 authorized fishermen; 60% of the catches of this animal unable to reproduce in captivity are reserved for the repopulation of rivers, the remaining 40%, authorized for sale. Since its classification in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) in 2009, to ensure its protection, the glass eel, called “pibale” in the South-West , is prohibited to export outside the European Union.
But it is in China that the European Anguilla anguilla is the most popular. Faced with the virtual extinction of its local species, Anguilla japonica, Asia has become a market as fruitful as it is illegal, where prices can be ten times higher than in France. A godsend for poachers, not satisfied by a local market limited to a few gourmet restaurants, especially in Spain, where the pibale, appreciated in casserole or on tapas, is still a festive dish.
Yet thirty years ago glass eels were still swarming in the rivers of western France. It was a “poor man’s dish”, the surplus of which was used to make glue. The decline of around 75% of its population is not due to overfishing alone. River pollution, climate change, urbanization and erratic water management have weakened the habitat of this migrant, growing in French rivers before returning to lay eggs, then die, in the Sargasso Sea.
In recent months, cases of glass eels have increased, particularly in the South West. According to information from Le Monde, four major cases are currently being investigated at the specialized interregional jurisdiction (JIRS) of Bordeaux. Among them, the follow-up to the dismantling of a network of traffickers which led to the indictment, in the spring of 2021, of around ten people. In total, 46 tonnes of glass eels would have been sold, according to a complex architecture, combining logistics platforms installed in Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania and Bulgaria), front companies located in Ireland and Panama, and a system of retrocommissions between Asia and Africa, intended to launder gains estimated at 18.5 million euros.
” Scapegoats “
“The lawsuits are also a judicial indicator of the loss of biodiversity”, notes Me François Ruffié, lawyer in Libourne (Gironde). The miraculous catches from the docks of his city now only animate the memories of the ancients. “The fishing grounds, and therefore poaching, are getting closer to the coast, for example in the Médoc with regard to the Gironde”, remarks the lawyer, defender in particular of the France Nature Environment association. “Among the poachers, we find petty criminals known for various crimes and scams – stories of drugs, hunting, cars… – families of Travelers, but also professionals cheating on quotas”, continues- he. On October 25, the Dax criminal court sentenced a Landes fishmonger to eighteen months suspended prison sentence and a fine of 80,000 euros. His fault? The concealment of 55 kilos of elvers “not justified”.
At the start of the campaign, the first fishing trips were hardly fruitful. On that cold autumn night, Jean-Yves Elissalde leaves behind the lights of Bayonne, lulled by the purring of his little gray boat sailing on the Adour. The Moon for only witness, this experienced professional, equipped with a headlamp, goes up the river to plunge his two nets 120 centimeters in diameter. He, who learned the trade at the age of 13, alongside his father, has known good years as much as crises, alone at the helm of his boat and also, sometimes, in court.
“Glass eel fishing is the most regulated there is, and fishermen are too often considered as scapegoats”, plague this 53-year-old guy, criticizing decisions taken by “bureaucrats” above ground, serving the interests of ” the smoked eel mafia ”, from the countries of northern Europe. The winners, he said, of the legislation putting China out of the game.
“The best way to fight trafficking and stabilize the industry is to be able to sell to the Chinese again,” he said. Tonight, only three elvers squirm in its nets. Nothing to add on the famous “fishing book” listing the catches. When the weather and the tide are right, he will no longer be alone to probe the troubled waters of the Adour. The greed will attract the quiet aces of “sock fishing”, carried out from the shore using large sieves.
Inspector beaten up
These white gold diggers will try to avoid the gray uniforms of the OFB agents charged with tracking down flagrant crimes. Their nightly encounters are more and more tense. Lionel Taillebois, environmental inspector with 37 fishing campaigns to his credit, was recently beaten up by a group of poachers downstream from Dax. “The findings are complex, faced with ever more organized groups, posting lookouts, and ready to defend themselves,” he says. According to him, of the 15,000 fishing logs collected each year, the OFB services are only able to check about 2%.
Once the goods are stored in a car trunk, the race against time begins. Elvers can not survive more than 48 hours before regaining a pond with sufficient oxygen. “The modus operandi is now similar to that of drug trafficking,” notes Patrick Gauchard, head of the Bordeaux unit of the judicial and financial investigations service (SEJF). Groups use encrypted phones and fast vehicles opening and closing convoys. “
These vans seek as a priority to reach international airports, limiting losses. “The main axis is the A86 motorway,” notes Michaël Faucher, divisional customs chief at Bordeaux-Mérignac. Unlike drug seizures, mainly carried out on a south-north axis, glass eels are transported to Spain, the center of gravity of trafficking. In 2019, the Bordeaux customs services seized more than 1.2 tonnes of glass eels, out of a total of five tonnes in Europe.
After a possible stage in a “rebound” zone (in Morocco, in the Balkans or in Eastern Europe, according to the latest findings), the globe-trotting fry land in China to undergo an express fattening there, immersed in the basins. from aquaculture farms to industrial methods. An accelerated growth cycle (sometimes less than four years, compared to seven years usually) before ending up on the plates. Some will conclude this long migration to Europe, in the form of “chopped eels”, ready to be tasted smoked or topped over sushi.
But beyond the borders, the trace of the elvers is lost just as much as that of the traffickers, operating in partitioned cells where the “leaders” are unknown to their “soldiers”. Despite the development of international police cooperation, in particular with the Spanish Guardia Civil, the order givers remain largely invisible. The three Chinese condemned in Bordeaux in February 2021 have also disappeared in the wild, thanks to the pandemic. Released under judicial supervision, then absent from their trial, they are still wanted to this day.
Thomas Saintourens