Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Reporterre: “L’anguille française victime d’un vaste trafic international”

“victim of extensive international trafficking”

In this investigation by Hortense Chauvin &  Théo Tzelepoglou (La Salamandre) for Reporterre, the illegal  eel trade in France is discussed alongside  interviews  with SEG  Chairman  Andrew  Kerr, Éric Feunteun and Guillaume Rulin.  

Read the full article in French here, translated into English below.

English Translation

The French eel victim of a vast international traffic
Very popular in Asia, the eel is the subject of a vast international traffic.
By Hortense Chauvin

You are reading the second part of the investigation “ The eel, an enigma of life threatened with extinction ” . It is published in partnership with the Revue Salamandre . The first part, on the astonishing lifestyle of this migratory fish, is available here .

A layman seeing it miraculously at the bottom of an estuary would no doubt think they were dealing with small fry. A long translucent worm, barely thicker than a piece of spaghetti, with only two large black eyes as its ornament. And yet. The glass eel – the name given to the eel in its juvenile stage – is worth gold. A package. To the point that a vast traffic has been structured around it, stretching its tentacles from European rivers to Chinese aquaculture farms. According to Europol estimates, the illegal trade in this small fish generates billions of euros in dirty money each year, pushing a critically endangered species to the brink of extinction .
President of the Sustainable Eel Group – an eel protection organization based in Brussels – the British Andrew Kerr describes it as “ the biggest environmental crime on the planet ” ; the “ ivory ” of Europeans. There we find all the elements traditionally associated with arms and drug trafficking: “ go fasts ” , transporting this “ white gold ” from the ocean at full speed to less careful countries ; “ mules ” , exfiltrating the glass eels hidden in their suitcases to Asia, where they are fattened, then resold at high prices on the stalls of the fish markets .
“ These are organized circuits, banditry, death threats, brawls, ” says Professor Éric Feunteun, researcher at the National Museum of Natural History and the most eminent specialist in eels.
30 kg of eels: 1 million euros
The misfortune of this species has its source in its fatty flesh, which enthusiasts agree to find tasty. Marinated, smoked, in the form of sushi or sashimi… the Japanese love it. The ace  ! The degradation of wetlands, the increase in obstacles in waterways and pesticides , in particular, led to a collapse of local populations ( Anguilla japonica ) in the early 1980s.
“  The Japanese therefore began to explore other sources ,  ” says Laurent Beaulaton, head of the division for the management of amphihaline migrants in their environment at the French Biodiversity Office ( OFB ), Inrae, Agro Institute and the University of Pau and the Adour region.
One of the specificities of the eel is that it is almost impossible to successfully reproduce in captivity. The fish only procreates in the middle of the Sargasso Sea – or off the coast of the Mariana Islands, in the case of Anguilla japonica  -, at the end of a long and mysterious journey into the abyss  [1] .
A few months ago, researchers from the University of Kindai (Japan) managed , after decades of trials, to obtain larvae from eels resulting from artificial reproduction techniques. According to specialists, however, it will be years before these tests can be replicated on an industrial scale.
At present, ”  the only way to farm eels is to source wild glass eels  ” , assures Guillaume Rulin, marine project manager and fight against the trafficking of amphihaline migrants at the ‘ OFB . In order to satisfy their hunger, the Japanese therefore turned towards Europe, already blessed with numerous fisheries.
Glass eels (left) are transparent when young. They become darker when they are adults (right). © French Customs and Théo Tzelepoglou/La Salamandre/Reporterre
Except that the eels that wriggle in our rivers and lagoons are not doing much better than their Asian cousins. Parasites, dams and pollution have reduced their population to nothing, forcing the European Union to put in place fishing quotas and to ban, in 2010, the export of the delectable fish. “  Overnight it became illegal ,” recalls Andrew Kerr. But the trading lines between Asia and Europe were already well established. The law was passed, but no one took it into account.  »
The reason for this is simple. “  It’s a very lucrative trade, with fewer risks than arms or drug trafficking  , ” explains Guillaume Rulin. A freshly caught glass eel costs around 10 cents  ; in Hong Kong [in China], you buy it for 1 euro  ; after eighteen months of fattening in a Chinese aquaculture farm, it is worth ten times more. “  It’s madness ,” comments Andrew Kerr. You can put 100,000 glass eels in a 30 kilo suitcase. This represents, ultimately, 1 million euros.  »
France, a hub
France, where the vast majority of European glass eels settle, is a hub. “  It represents 80  % of legal catches on the continent, and therefore probably illegal catches ,  ” estimates Laurent Beaulaton. 39  % of seizures made by Europol between 2011 and 2021 were in France, followed by Spain, where glass eels are regularly transported before being shipped to Malaysia, Thailand or China.
Investigations carried out by the OFB and the Central Office for Combating Environmental and Public Health Attacks (Oclaesp) have highlighted ramifications as far away as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Lithuania. . “  Recently, a Malaysian who took a bus to Portugal was arrested in the Central region with 20 kilos of glass eels in his suitcase ,” says Guillaume Rulin. It’s everywhere.  »

“  A fishing team, a watchman, and a third leaves with the glass eels  

To carry out their deadly trade, traffickers compete in ingenuity. An elver fisherman from the Loire region, requesting anonymity for fear that people would “  attack his boat  ” in retaliation, says he regularly sees them at night in the waterways where he works.
“  There is a team that fishes, one that watches, and a third that leaves with the glass eels. Those who fish almost never have fish with them. If checked, this limits damage.  » Some, he describes, use drones to monitor the police. “  It’s very structured.  »
In addition to the seizure of 302 kg of eels in February 2023, French customs discovered around forty suitcases, weighing equipment and even transparent bags for transporting live animals. © French customs
After being caught, the glass eels are stored in illegal fish tanks. “  The buildings are around ten degrees, or even less in winter ,” describes Laurent Beaulaton. At this temperature, the glass eels hardly move and eat. They can survive like this for about a month, which gives traffickers time to organize their shipment.  »
Insulated suitcases to avoid customs
The fry are then sent to Asia, packed in plastic bags filled with hydrogen peroxide. Special suitcases, sealed with insulated paper, have been developed by traffickers to facilitate their transfer. The latter must be as rapid as possible, the glass eels cannot survive more than 72 hours in these conditions.
The system often escapes the vigilance of customs. “  Automatic suitcase surveillance systems are not designed to detect bodies of water ,  ” explains Guillaume Rulin.
Special suitcases, sealed with insulated paper, have been developed by traffickers to facilitate the transfer of fry. © French customs
Investigations carried out by the OFB and Oclaesp show that smugglers often carry out legal fishing or trading activities in parallel. “  This is not a prejudice on our part, it is a fact – even if there are of course honest professionals ,  ” insists Guillaume Rulin. Illegal breeding grounds are sometimes hidden within these front companies.
Last May, says Guillaume Rulin, the authorities succeeded in dismantling a network operating between France, Spain, Belgium and Poland, suspected of having illegally exported nearly 4 tonnes of glass eels between 2021 and 2023. Among the twenty-seven traffickers arrested was the second largest wholesaler in France.
According to the Spanish Basque daily El Correo , one of the companies in the inspectors’ crosshairs belongs to a historic member of the pro-independence terrorist organization ETA , José Antonio Aguirrebarrena, nicknamed ”  Tarzan  ” . After a stint in Yemeni military training camps and multiple run-ins with the French and Spanish courts, the man would have converted to the eel trade via a fish trading company, Ibaitz. The latter was also searched in May by the Guardia Civil.
A species almost wiped out
It is complex to precisely assess the quantity of glass eels captured and sold illegally each year in our latitudes. According to specialists, they number in the tens of millions. Enough to screw a final nail into the already almost closed coffin of European eels. “  This constitutes a very significant attack on the environment ,  ” judges Benjamin Hogommat, legal manager at France Nature Environnement ( FNE ) Pays de la Loire, who regularly acts as a civil party in trials linked to eel trafficking.
If poaching is far from being the only one responsible for the annihilation of these fish  [2] , “  he participates in it  ”  : “  That’s tens of thousands fewer individuals to perpetuate the generations.  »
Read also: Industrial fishing: a massively subsidized destructive model
The authorities seem to have become aware, in recent years, of the scale of the problem. In France, the increasingly close collaboration between the OFB and Oclaesp has enabled state agents to carry out longer and more complex investigations, with investigative tools similar to those used against drug trafficking. or weapons: eavesdropping, shadowing… “  We have more and more prison sentences today ,  ” observes Guillaume Rulin.
256 arrests in one year
The same dynamic is at work across the entire continent. “  Stopping trafficking has become a priority in Europe ,  ” says Andrew Kerr. Europol initiated Operation Lake in 2015 , in collaboration with  the  police services of several countries. Its last edition, which took place between October 2022 and June 2023, resulted in the arrest of 256 people suspected of having trafficked 25 tonnes of live glass eels.
These operations appear to have borne fruit. According to figures from the Sustainable Eel Group, 23  % of glass eels reaching European shores were exported illegally in 2018  ; in 2022, there were “  only  ” 10  % left. “  We went from 300 million glass eels leaving the territory at the start of the 2010s to around 50 million today ,  ” estimates Andrew Kerr.
Elver fishing is carried out with trawlers equipped with sieves, like here near the Brault bridge, between Vendée and Charente Maritime. Wikimedia Commons/ CC /Jean-Pierre Bazard
This success has a downside: “  We are in the process of solving the problem in Europe, but we have moved it elsewhere ,  ” regrets the Briton. Like a hydra, the glass eel trade is redeploying in North America, with no less than 157 tonnes of young American eels ( Anguilla rostrata ) exported to Asia in 2022, according to a study published in January 2024 in the scientific journal Marine Policy . “  It is a cynical indication of the success we have had in Europe ,  ” laments the Briton, according to whom putting an end to trafficking requires “  global action, not just local  ” .
Completely ban their fishing  ?
Among the other avenues mentioned: improving the traceability of legally fished eels, developing certifications… Some, like Professor Éric Feunteun, believe that reauthorizing the export of glass eels – by reinjecting the proceeds from taxes into the protection of the species and its habitat — could stop illegal fishing.
Others consider, based on the recommendations of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ciem), that the catastrophic state of the populations justifies a total ban on its exploitation  ; which could make it easier to identify fraudsters.
Hurry up. Present in all waterways sixty years ago, European eels today risk annihilation. “  Things are moving very quickly, we must not take the risk of missing out ,  ” insists Éric Feunten. Appearing 70 million years ago, these fish have survived “  multiple glaciations, periods of warming, mass extinctions  ” , notes the researcher. Their migration, he continues, has questioned scientists since the time of Aristotle. Will they succumb to our species, even before their secrets have been unlocked  ?

You can read here the first part of the investigation “  The eel, an enigma of life threatened with extinction  ” , carried out in partnership with the Revue Salamandre .