Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

Trafficking makes eels ‘as valuable as cocaine’

Trafficking makes eels ‘as valuable as cocaine’

by Lewis Smith
Black market trafficking of eel is soaring with the critically endangered fish so valuable it is described as “Europe’s ivory”.
Trafficking is at such a high level that it has destroyed all the progress made by a 10-year Europe-wide conservation project to restore the species – which can be more valuable than cocaine.

@Florian Büttner

Illegal trade in the fish has more than doubled to an estimated 60 tonnes in the last 12 months, with smugglers using increasingly sophisticated routes and methods to get eel out of Europe and to Asia, usually China where it is considered a delicacy.
Up to 15 tonnes of elvers and glass eel can be traded legally within the European Union each year but since 2009 it has been illegal to export them beyond Europe’s borders.

Hidden in a suitcase

Demand, however, remains unquenched and in March this year a stash of 600,000 juvenile eels worth an estimated £440,000 was discovered at Heathrow Airport hidden under a crate of fish being exported legitimately.
Smugglers will pay €250 to €450 per kg of young eel and sell them in Asia for €800 to €1,500 per kg.
In other parts of Europe a police crackdown led to dozens of arrests and the seizure of millions of pounds worth of European eels, Anguilla anguilla, some of them concealed in hidden compartments in suitcases.
Andrew Kerr, of the Sustainable Eel Group, said a crackdown by the authorities on trafficking is long overdue if the struggling population is to avoid further devastation. “The problem of trafficking is getting bigger. Eel are Europe’s own ivory – it’s the number one challenge,” he said.

Conservation undermined

The European Commission has proposed banning eel fishing at sea to help restore the population but the move has been criticised as all but pointless because virtually all eel fishing is carried out in fresh water areas, such as the River Severn and River Parrett in the UK.
Dams, weirs and other blockages of rivers pose another huge problem for eel as they are prevented from getting to inland wetlands to mature, and from swimming back to the sea as breeding adults.
“Cocaine gets a lot of money, but you pay a lot for it. But the elvers grow! Each elver weighs 0.3g and grows to 500g.” – Lieutenant Juan Luis García, of the Spanish police
EU member states have for a decade been running conservation programmes to help the European eel with initiatives such as bypasses to help them get round dams but Mr Kerr fears it has been wasted effort.
“Europe’s programme to protect the eel has been totally undermined by trafficking,” he said “The UK alone is spending £100 million on a four-year cycle to unblock the migration routes of eel. All the good we are doing has been undermined by trafficking to Asia.” With demand for the fish continuing to rise in China, where they are eaten grilled, it is feared traffickers will attempt to smuggle even greater quantities in the 2017-18 season.

Smuggled back to Europe

Juvenile eels, either glass eels or the slightly more developed elvers, are the main targets of the trade as they can either be eaten as a delicacy or fattened up to develop into adult eel.
Some are even grown to maturity in China, smuggled back into Europe as smoked eel, but falsely labelled as Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica.
“Elvers are a huge business,” said Juan Luis García, a lieutenant in Spain’s Guardia Civil police force. “If you invest €1 in elvers and €1 in cocaine, eels are much more profitable than cocaine.
“Cocaine gets a lot of money, but you pay a lot for it. But the elvers grow! Each elver weighs 0.3g and grows to 500g.” Spain is thought to have at least four smuggling syndicates and there are others in the UK, Portugal and France.
Each is estimated to rake in €4 million in profits each year. France, which its sets eel quotas at more than twice the maximum quantity that allowed to be traded across Europe, is cited by campaigners as one of the biggest problem countries.