Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Surrey fish broker becomes first in UK convicted of involvement in £2.5bn endangered eel smuggling racket

Surrey fish broker becomes first in UK convicted of involvement in £2.5bn endangered eel smuggling racket

Exclusive: Every year 350m baby live eels are being smuggled out of Europe to the Far East — an illegal trade more lucrative than cocaine

By Cahal Milmo
Friday, 7th February 2020, 6:01 pm, originally published on

Organised crime gangs have set up networks to smuggle juvenile eels from Spain and France to Europe via hub airports such as Heathrow (Photo: SEG)

The 66-year-old, Gilbert Khoo, who had paid for the shipping of the elver consignment seized at Heathrow in February 2017, was this week found guilty of illegally importing and exporting eels in the first case of its kind to come before the British courts (Photo: National Crimew Agency)

When law enforcement officers patrolling the vast Heathrow cargo warehouse operated by Cathay Pacific opened a consignment of 15 large polystyrene boxes en route to Hong Kong, there were no immediate grounds for questioning its description as “chilled fresh fish”.
Inside each crate of the 660kg shipment was a glistening layer of tilapia freshwater fish, with a total suggested value of around £1,200. It was only when investigators from the National Crime Agency (NCA) delved deeper into the cartons that they realised they had stumbled on a bumper crop of one of the most rampantly – and profitably – smuggled commodities on the planet: live baby eels.
Hidden beneath the dead tilapia were some 600,000 writhing elvers, en route from Spain to the Far East via rural Gloucestershire, as part of a complex criminal enterprise to cash in on Asia’s insatiable appetite for the critically endangered Anguilla anguilla, otherwise known as the European eel.
The export of elvers out of Europe is banned, and such is the level of demand that if the consignment seized at Heathrow had arrived at its intended destination, the value of the baby eels would have risen during its journey from £165,000 to £3.9m.

Extraordinary life cycle

The European eel is a creature whose extraordinary migratory lifecycle, extending over 6,500km from its Caribbean breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea to Europe’s rivers, has long intrigued and beguiled naturalists.
But its enduring status as a culinary delicacy also attracts the unwelcome attention of organised crime syndicates. 
Costing €300 (£255) a kilo when fished legitimately in Spain or France, the value of 1,000g of young Anguilla anguilla will have risen to € 25,000 (£21,170) by the time they have been trafficked out of Europe in contravention of a decade-old export ban and grown to adult size in Chinese fish farms for onward sale.

More lucrative than smuggling cocaine

Measured on the basis of profit by weight, eel smuggling is vastly more lucrative than trafficking cocaine.

Conservation efforts have led to a small recovery in the numbers of glass eels reaching European shores after a catastrophic decline. (Photo: SEG)

According to the Sustainable Eel Group, the Brussels-based conservation body set up to champion the species, the illegal trade in baby European eels to China yields adult fish worth some $3.3bn (£2.5bn) each year.
It is a temptingly bankable trade which Gilbert Khoo, a Malaysian-born fish broker living in suburban in Surrey, could not resist.
The 66-year-old, who had paid for the shipping of the elver consignment seized at Heathrow in February 2017, was this week found guilty of illegally importing and exporting eels in the first case of its kind to come before the British courts.
It is estimated that in a two-year period between 2015 and 2017, Khoo was involved in the smuggling of 6.5 tons – equivalent to 20 million baby eels – out of Britain. The potential “street value” of the eels if they grew to full adult size would have been €290m (£245m).
A three-week trial at Southwark Crown Court in London heard how Khoo was at the centre of a smuggling operation stretching from Spain, Portugal and France to Hong Kong and beyond, via an unlicensed aquaculture operation set up in a shed on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of the handsome Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury.

Eel industry

The ad hoc “elver station” was able to operate without arousing immediate suspicion because it was situated barely a mile from the River Severn, which is at the heart of Britain’s own small, but legal, eel fishing industry.
Khoo, who started his career as fish trader in Iceland before moving to Britain in 2002, had claimed he did not know it was illegal to export eels and when arrested told officers: “You have no evidence.”
When later presented with that evidence, including an extensive inventory of payments to and from a Hong Kong-based businessman whose company was receiving the eels, he offered no comment. He told his trial: “I was just the middleman.”


In reality, his involvement ranged from co-ordinating multiple elver shipments via Heathrow on behalf of a Hong Kong-based businessman to acting as a conduit for cash to pay for expenses including an on-site caravan for staff at the elver station.
NCA senior investigating officer Ian Truby said: “The entire operation run by Khoo was illegal from start to finish, and there is no doubt his sole motivation was money. Along with our partners, like Border Force and the Fish Health Inspectorate, we are determined to do all we can to stop the global black market trade of endangered species.”
The prosecution of Khoo is a further victory for a Europe-wide effort to arrest a precipitous decline which has placed Anguilla anguilla – once the continent’s most abundant freshwater fish on the same critically endangered “red list” as the Sumatran orangutan.

Disappearing wetlands

Smugglers use sophisticated aquaculture techniques to conserve eels before smuggling them out of Europe in concealed consignments, including suitcases fitted with battery-powered refrigeration units. (Photo: SEG)

Starting in 1980, European eel numbers entered a period of year-on-year falls precipitated by factors from the disappearance of wetlands to the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants which now block once unimpeded rivers and waterways.
As a result the numbers reaching Europe’s rivers now stand at barely 10 per cent of what they once were.
A Europe-wide conservation plan has begun to turn that tide with the most recent figures suggesting that the number of so-called “glass eels” (transparent baby eels arriving from the Sargasso Sea) arriving in European waters has stabilised and is staging a modest recovery. Over the past five years, there has been an average annual rise of nearly 9 per cent.


But it is an upward curve that is imperilled by exports to the Far East, which were finally made illegal in 2010 and have been the subject of a concerted crackdown by law enforcement agencies across Europe, including the UK.
When NCA officers raided the small warehouse being used to house the eels flown in from Spain and then repackaged for their onward journey to Hong Kong, they found state-of-the-art aquaculture tanks with oxygen and filtering systems to maintain the water purity required to keep the fish alive.
Andrew Kerr, the British chairman of the SEG, told iweekend: “The Khoo case shows how highly organised and how lucrative eel smuggling is. This is not easy stuff – the technology is difficult to get right. But when you do, it is highly profitable. In this case organised criminals were looking to export a critically endangered fish and flout the desire of the public to see it saved.” 

Criminal kingpins

According to the EU policing agency Europol, every year up to 350 million glass eels or elvers are smuggled to the Far East – equivalent to about a quarter of the total number of fish reaching Europe naturally each year. Numerically, it is by far the biggest wildlife crime on the planet.
It is a sophisticated and multi-layered operation presided over by criminal kingpins based across the Far East who in turn use networks of middlemen, such as Khoo, to source elvers nominally destined for the internal legal European market and then spirit them out to destinations such as Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines via hub airports in Paris, Madrid and London.
In one case last autumn, two Chinese nationals – a 20-year-old woman and a 43-year-old man – were arrested at Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Airport when they were found with 60kg of elvers concealed in their luggage. The containers holding the live fish had been fitted with battery-powered refrigeration devices to cool the creatures into the hibernation-like state needed to survive the journey.

1,000 fish farms

A separate investigation in Spain in 2018 uncovered a similar ad hoc aquarium to the one discovered in Gloucestershire, along with 364 suitcases stacked against a wall ready to convey the eels in multiple consignments to Hong Kong and then onwards for distribution among the 1,000 fish farms that have sprung up on the Chinese mainland since the 90s.
Europol announced in November that 5.7 tons of smuggled glass eels worth €11.5m (£9.7m) were confiscated and 154 people arrested in the 12 months to June 2019 as a result of two international operations involving EU nations. The organisation is planning to use DNA testing on adult fish originating from China in an attempt to prove the reliance of eel farms in the country on illegal Anguilla anguilla.
The heaviest price paid is by the fish themselves. Of the 600,000 eels seized at Heathrow in February 2017, more than 300,000 had perished. About 290,000 were eventually returned to Spain via a wildlife sanctuary in Bournemouth.

Less-protected waters

With Chinese farms now churning out 240,000 tons of fresh eel a year and no capacity to breed the animals in captivity, there is no sign of a drop in demand.
As a result, the criminal gangs are already looking to less protected waters in order to maintain supplies. Authorities in the Dominican Republic last year seized a shipment of Anguilla rostrata, or American eel, an endangered close cousin of Anguilla anguilla, which was suspected to be en route to the Far East in breach of export rules.
Mr Kerr said: “Good work is being done in Europe, but there is evidence that the crime gangs are already looking elsewhere for new supplies. Without international co-operation, this is a threat that will not go away.”

Willem Dekker, Director of Science: “The European eel supports the most widespread and most-trafficked fisheries in Europe. Wherever you look, those fisheries are small-scaled, locally operated, deeply embedded in local cultures – encompassing recreational and commercial, legal and illegal components. Unfortunately, some of these are feeding into world-wide-operating gangs and networks, as evidenced today. As important as it is to fight illegal fisheries and trafficking, one cannot simply eliminate all fishing – opportunities for less-legal practices occur at every bend in the road, all over Europe, and certainly for criminal organisations like this. Hence, a strict regulation of legal fisheries towards sustainability criteria is urgently needed.”

David Bunt, Director of Conservation Operations: “It is good to see continued crackdown on this trafficking which currently might be the greatest threat to the recovery of the eel. Responsible consumers should look out for eel supplies with the SEG-supported Eel Stewardship Fund (ESF) label. Only a fully certified and traceable supply chain can ensure a responsible product, and avoid illegal trafficking.”