Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Natural recruitment of depleted European eel is finally increasing

  • The leading Independent Scientific Body advising the EU on fisheries matters states that glass eel recruitment has been increasing in the period 2011 – 2019
  • The Sustainable Eel Group praises the EU Eel Regulation and calls upon member states to fully implement their Eel Management Plans
  • Earlier this week, EUROPOL also revealed the success of EU-led operations tackling the illegal eel trade, Europe’s greatest wildlife crime
8th November 2019: An independent report published today states that the recruitment of the depleted European eel has been increasing since 2011 at a statistically significant rate. The report titled ICES Advice on Fishing opportunities, catch, and effort for European eel and written by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) revealed that the recruitment (the number entering European waters) of glass eels has stopped decreasing, disrupting a trend that began in 1980.
Statistical analyses of time-series from 1980–2019 show that there was a change in the trend of glass eel recruitment indices in 2011; the recruitment has stopped decreasing and has been increasing in the period 2011–2019 with a rate statistically significantly different from zero. The highest point during the period from 2011–2019 was in 2014. For juvenile glass eels, the last five-year mean was an increase of 8.7%.

European eel recruitment, from 1960 to 2019. Data from 46 stations across (western) Europe were analysed; the common trend is expressed as an index, with the 1960-1979 mean representing 100%. Separate indices were calculated for the North Sea area and the rest of Europe (elsewhere). Source: ICES Advice on Fishing opportunities, catch, and effort for European eel

Andrew Kerr, Chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, commented:SEG strongly welcomes the encouraging statement from ICES that the recruitment of European eel is now on the rise. We believe that this really positive news is thanks to the Eel Regulation and the combined efforts of EU member states. This is proof that international collaboration however difficult can work and that for an extraordinary species like the European Eel is essential. Countries must now redouble their efforts and fully implement their national eel management plans since eel recovery is going to take many more decades. We hope that the combination of scientists, conservationists and commercial peoples all working together will be an inspiration to others.
The European eel begins its life in the Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda. The larvae travel 6,000km via Atlantic currents to the European coastline where they become glass eels. The glass eels migrate up rivers to become elvers and then yellow eels. Once they begin their migration back downstream into the sea, they turn into silvers eels. Humankind has never witnessed the European eel breeding in the wild, however this is thought to take place in the Sargasso Sea.
The number of eels reaching Europe dramatically declined between 1980 to 2011 because of a combination of overfishing, pollution, and human infrastructure (such as dams and weirs) that block their natural migration. Since 2010, the species has been classified as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN and has been listed at Appendix II the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The illegal trafficking of European eels has also been undermining the species’ recovery, which has led enforcement agencies to make countering eel trafficking an urgent priority.

Earlier this week, the EU’s law enforcement agency, EUROPOL, revealed that 5,789 kilograms of smuggled glass eels have been seized in Europe and 154 arrested during the most recent fishing season (2018-2019) as a result of Operation Lake and Operation Fame. With an estimated value of €2,000 per kilogram, those smuggled eels were worth over €11.5 million. The operations brought together 10 European countries to coordinate efforts to hamper the illegal trade of European eel.
Commenting on an update on the illegal European eel trade in June, Jose Antonio Alfaro Moreno, Operations Specialist at EUROPOL said:
All the arrests mentioned are in Europe with the majority from Spain, France and Portugal. The main actions have been taken from SEPRONA, they have led the way in Europe along with the Portuguese and French authorities. Glass eels are trafficked out of the EU, put into eel farms in Asia and then sent back to the US, Canada and the EU. The development of this technology being used in monitoring the DNA of the eel has allowed us to prove that the European eel is coming from Asia. We have also collaborated with the EU Enforcement Group and the EU Food Fraud Network.
The people arrested in Europe are poachers, mules and members from other criminal networks. We have focused not just looking at trafficking glass eels as a single issue, but the wider criminal networks. Year after year, more countries are joining our actions. For example, this year we are carrying out more work in Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and Macedonia.”

About the Sustainable Eel Group:
The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) is the leading international organisation seeking to accelerate the conservation and management of the European eel. Working across all boundaries and through an integrated approach, SEG initiates and supports scientific research, conservation projects and the reinvention of the eel sector.

About ICES:
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is an independent science organisation consisting of over 5,000 scientists from more than 700 marine institutes. ICES aims to advance and share scientific knowledge on marine ecosystems and their exploitation.
ICES provides scientific advice on the marine ecosystem, including on species, to governments and international regulatory bodies that manage the North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas. ICES reviews the status of the European eel and advice for its management and published a report every year.
The report ICES Advice on Fishing opportunities, catch, and effort for European eel can be found here:

EUROPOL is the EU’s law enforcement agency and supports all EU member states in their fight against organised crime.
EUROPOL initiates Operation Lake alongside Eurojust, INTERPOL and the EU Wildlife Group/CITES Enforcement Group. The Operation aims to tackle trafficking of endangered species in the EU and dismantle the organised crime groups responsible. 10 countries and 448 operations across Europe took part in this year’s Operation Lake and resulted in the arrest of 154 suspects and seizure of 5,789 kilograms of glass eels.
Full press release on the success of this year’s Operation Lake and Operation Fame:
The EUROPOL press release reveals that from autumn 2018 to spring 2019 17 million endangered European eels had been seized, with 154 arrests across the EU. This was a 50 percent increase in arrests for this illegal wildlife crime since the 2017/2018 period.
Enforcement data from EUROPOL from June, updated on 06 November 2019:
Seizes (T)
*Autumn to the end of spring

The state of trafficking of European eel:
The trafficking of European eel is one of the greatest wildlife crimes on the planet in terms of both traded individuals and market value. 300 million individual European eels, equating to 100 tonnes, are smuggled from the European Union to China every year, resulting in the illicit trade to be estimated to be worth approximately €3 billion every year.
Eels are trafficked through either disguising them within a large fish consignment in air freight containers, incorrectly declared as other unprotected eel species, or hidden in suitcases on long-haul flights. A typical suitcase may hold approximately 50,000 eels and weigh around 15kg. Each eel is worth approximately one Euro but once grown for a year, the end-product’s value can be multiplied tenfold.

Eel trade legislation:
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has listed the European eel on Appendix II, which means that no eel can be traded internationally without a Non-Detriment-Finding (NDF).
EU is party to CITES and implements that by means of its own EU Regulation COM 339/97 (Appendix II species become listed on Appendix B of the EU Regulation). CITES applies across EU-outer-borders, but allows regulated trade within the EU.
EU has considered options for an NDF, concluding in December 2010 that no NDF could be issued. Non-EU-countries can issue their own NDF (though it is considered against standing practices).
Anyone exporting across EU-borders without a NDF is breaking CITES listing and EU Regulation COM 339/97 listing.

For further information about the Sustainable Eel Group please contact:
Andrew Kerr, Chairman
T +44 7887 993 924
For media enquiries, please contact:
Ruth Kilsby, Seahorse Environmental Communications
T +44 7518 519 258