Accelerating the recovery of the European Eel

UNODC World Wildlife Crime Report 2020 features eel trafficking

Download Chapter 7: European Glass Eels
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From Reports Introduction: “On 28 October 2019, French customs officers at Charles de Gaulle Airport arrested two people on their way to Kunming, China, because they had 300,000 live glass eels1 in their lug- gage. Contained in water-filled plastic bags kept cool by frozen water bottles, this contraband weighed 91 kilo- grams and was worth over 100,000 euros. What these “fish mules” were doing was illegal because, following a significant decline in the wild popula- tion, European eel (Anguilla anguilla) was listed in Appendix II of CITES in 2009, and the European Union (EU) placed a ban on the import and export of these eels in 2010. This sei- zure represents just one small portion of a large-scale illicit flow involving many tons of live, critically endan- gered European eels smuggled from Europe to Asia every year.”

From Reports Conclusion: “Thousands of kilograms of European glass eels have been seized since 2012, representing millions of individual eels. It is unclear what share of the total illegal flow is interdicted, but law enforcement surveillance and intelligence suggest the share is rela- tively low. For example, one operation seized less than 500 kg of eels from a group that evidence later suggested had exported more than ten times that amount.
The volume and value of this trade is thus difficult to estimate. The 6,000 kg of glass eels seized in 2018 alone would have been worth up to nine million euros to importers. Accord- ing to law enforcement sources interviewed by UNODC, records seized from a criminal group as evi- dence suggest that similar volumes are shipped by individual groups annually. Of course, the glass eels are only the front end of the produc- tion process. Each kilogram of glass eels, costing 1,500 euros on the black market, can be converted into some 9,000 euros worth of filet on a wholesale level, thus enriching businesses who use trafficked eels in their production process. Wholesalers do not pocket all this money, of course, since the costs of farming must be taken into account, but given the volumes, the profits appear considerable.
At this point in time, every European glass eel imported for the purposes of farming requires a CITES certificate to export, as should every adult European eel exported after being grown out. Interviews with aquaculture specialists indicate that one kilogram of European glass eels yields 750 kilograms of filet. If so, it should be possible to reconcile glass eel imports with eel meat exports. Even taking into account the gap between introduction and harvest, it is unclear how such large exports of European eel meat would be possible given the low quantities of reported European glass eel imports (Figure 17). This suggests that glass eels were imported without CITES certification. In 2017, eel meat exports were commensurable with expected production, but this would only be possible if all European eel meat were exported and none retained for the domestic market. Additional, though incomplete, data reported to the CITES Animals Committee suggest that only 4.5 MT of European glass eels may have been introduced into Chinese cultivation ponds between 2011 and 2017. Teamed with the seizure data, which indicate the majority of intercepted shipments were destined for China, these trade data provide evidence of a sizable illegal flow.