Illegal Trade in Silver Eels: The Largest Wildlife Crime on Earth

The silver eel (Anguilla Anguilla, also known as the European eel) are one of the most mysterious creatures on planet earth. Up until the 1970s scientists believed that glass eels, elvers, yellow eels and silver eels were all distinct species, and not simply the silver eel at different stages of its life, and even today many aspects of this species life cycle and migration patterns are not fully understood.

Life Cycle of the Silver Eel

Silver eel eggs hatch in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic to the east of the Caribbean and Florida. The newly hatched eels begin to swim towards Europe on a journey which can take over one year. They then enter rivers around Europe, changing into an almost transparent glass eel form at this stage of their life. Following this they become elvers (baby eels) and then, once they are established in their freshwater environment they change colour and become yellow eels and may remain in this form, and in freshwater river systems, for many years.

Eventually a final change will occur. Eels will develop a pale underside and silver flanks and their eyes will grow larger as they become sexually mature silver eels. They will then leave freshwater rivers and head back to the sea, slithering over land to cross barriers (due to their rigid gill structure eels can survive much longer than fish out of water). After a period of time feeding in the marine environment the silver eel will begin the long journey back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and produce eggs which will allow the cycle to be repeated. Once this is complete the silver eel will die.

A Critically Endangered Species

As well as being one of the most fascinating species in the world the silver eel is also one of the most endangered. Recent years have seen the numbers of silver eels decline to such an extent that they now have the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) status of Critically Endangered on a worldwide basis, meaning that they are at imminent risk of extinction. There are a number of reasons for this decline including habitat loss, parasitic infections, barriers to migration and commercial overexploitation. It is estimated that European populations of eels have declined by around ninety per cent since the early 1980s (1).

River barriers such as dams. weirs and sluices have increased in number across the UK in recent years and are a major reason for the decline in eel numbers.

As silver eels have declined in number they have simultaneously become increasingly valuable in many parts of China, Japan and Hong Kong, where they are seen as a luxury food associated with bringing good luck, prestige and fertility to those who consume it. Today silver eels are so valuable in Asia that the illegal trade in silver eels (eel trafficking) is a rapidly growing crime with organised crime syndicates who would usually trade in drugs or firearms arms are instead turning their attention to silver eels. These criminal gangs are attracted by the huge sums of money which can be made by illegally exporting eels, and the fact that jail sentence for being caught with 100kg of silver eels is significantly less severe than being caught with the same amount of cocaine. Due to the huge number of silver eels which are caught and illegally transported across the world campaigners have referred to the illegal trafficking of silver eels as the “largest wildlife crime on earth” (1).

Silver Eels: Potentially More Valuable than Cocaine

The true value of European silver eels today is difficult to ascertain. Before 2010 they could be freely traded between European and Asia, with the legitimate supply of eels keeping prices stable. However, in 2010 declining numbers of silver eels across Europe led to a ban on exporting silver eels outside of the European Union. With the Asian market now only able to gain European silver eels illegally the cost of silver eels skyrocketed, leading to the establishment of an illegal Europe-to-Asia silver eel trade. Criminal gangs were quick to see the high rewards and low risks of silver eel trafficking, and therefore quickly became involved in this activity.

Cooked eel, a delicacy in China.

Eels are most often illegally trafficked when they are immature, usually when they are baby glass eels or the slightly larger elver stage of their lives. While they can be eaten at this size one of the main attractions for criminals is that they can be illegally exported to Asia with relative ease (usually concealed within legitimate shipments of fresh fish) and then grown into much larger and more profitable silver eels once they have reached their destination. In an interview with the i newspaper Lieutenant Juan Luis Garcia from Spain’s Civil Guardia police force described the attraction of exporting baby eels to criminals. He explained that an elver weighing 0.3 grams would grow to a silver eel weighing 500 grams and went on to say “elvers are a huge business … if you invest €1 in elvers and €1 in cocaine, eels are much more profitable than cocaine” (2). In an article on the BBC website Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) stated that on a worldwide basis the illegal trade in European silver eels could be worth as much as £3 billion per year (3).

When illegal shipments of eels are intercepted by police and border force officials the vast sums which can be made through this crime become apparent. In February 2020 a 66-year-old man was convicted of illegally smuggling a total of five million glass eels, potentially worth a combined £53 million, from London to Hong Kong between 2015 and 2017 (4). The were gathered in a location in Gloucester from countries around the EU and then illegally exported to Asia in legitimate shipments of fresh fish.

UK Border Force Wildlife Seizures

A collection of illegal wildlife items sized by UK Border Force officials at Heathrow airport. Specialist UK Border Force officers have successfully stopped silver eels from being exported to China.

A similar incident took place in 2019 when Croatian police officers arrested two South Korean nationals aged 38 and 47 at Zagreb International Airport on suspicion of trying to smuggle an estimated 252,000 live eels out of the country. The Croatian authorities stated that the pair would be charged with “destroying protected natural goods” and could face jail if found guilty (5). The eels were transferred to Zagreb zoo.

Secrecy and Lack of Openness

European eels are highly regulated within the EU, with only a small number of the EU quota allowed to be sold legitimately as food and the rest being used to restock areas where eel numbers have declined. France is seen as the central hub of European eel trafficking as the country has around three-quarters of Europe’s entire silver eel quota. In an in-depth article in the Guardian an anonymous source from the French authorities stated that although France kept records of who received silver eels which had been legitimately caught the data was not publicly released as it contained sensitive commercial information (6).

Such secrecy clearly facilitates illegal eel trafficking, and the Guardian article highlights the fact that part of France’s fifty-seven ton eel quota cannot be accounted for. An ample twenty-one tons is set aside for restocking but reports have emerged that insufficient eels are being supplied for this purpose, with suspicions that the eels which unaccounted for are being illegally traded (6). It is therefore clear than Europe’s problems with eels being trafficked to Asia is not down to low-level poachers sending opportunistic small-scale illegal catches to Asian countries, but part of a well organised and determined criminal conspiracy which has the resources to overcome the significant logistical issues which stand in their way.

The BBC’s Countryfile programme investigated the trade of silver eels.

The process of how eels are illegally trafficked from Europe to Asia and then find their way into the legitimate market is uncertain. Illegal shipments are made in such quantities with such efficiency that it is clear that well organised criminal gangs are behind the trafficking. In 2019 the BBC’s Countryfile programme carried out an investigation into the illegal trade of silver eels. They found that legitimate and licenced silver eel fishermen were being approached buy foreign buyers offering to purchase silver eels directly from them on a ‘no questions asked’ basis at prices far above the true market rate for the legal intra-EU trade in eels (3). The programme then carried out their own investigation, placing a fake advert online offering to sell silver eels. They were soon approached by people wanting to buy the eels to illegally export them to China, South Korea and Russia (3), with one buyer willing to pay £1000 per kilogram. The price which the eels would sell for within the UK or Europe would be around £150 per kilogram (3).

Measures to Stop Silver Eel Trafficking

One of the issues with stopping the illegal trade in eels is that law enforcement agencies are unwilling to divert resources to combat this issue as it is not seen as a serious crime. This means that measures put forward to stop illegal trafficking from taking place are often ineffective and many of the discoveries of illegal silver eels which are made at airports are made through routine checks on goods, rather than through specific intelligence and action to stop silver eel smuggling. The 2010 law to stop eels being exported outside of the EU was a positive move, but the sheer volume of eels still going to Asian countries means that much better detection and enforcement is needed in order to see any meaningful reduction in eel trafficking. Other measures have been utterly pointless, such as the 2018 ruling from the European Commission of a three month closure period for fishing for eels in all marine and brackish waters. Despite the Commission declaring that this was a “crucial measures to ensure the recovery of the stock” almost all eel catches take place in a freshwater environment, making the measure almost totally meaningless (7).

Areas where elvers can be caught are highly protected, as this sign leading to the River Severn shows.

Progress has been made in some areas. The Sustainable Eel Group is working on its own SEG Standard which will be awarded to eel fisheries which are able to show how the eel they supply is caught sustainably and then tracked and traced through all stages of the supply chain to ensure that it is from a responsible source (8). They are also working to calculate how much of the silver eel quota reaches the European market and how much is used for restocking. The remaining figure will therefor give an indication of the amount of silver eel which is reaching the Asian market and therefore unveil the true scale of the issue of illegal eel trafficking (6).

There are signs that the measures to prevent eel trafficking are beginning to see some success. During the 2017 – 2018 eel fishing season European law enforcement agencies were able to seize almost 3,400 kilograms of live silver eel from smugglers, much of which was released live back into its natural environment (9). Operation Lake and Operation Elver were Europe-wide initiatives to stop illegal eel exports and both made seizures of illegally held live eels and resulted in arrests. However, the problem of eel smuggling is still prevalent throughout Europe. The SEG’s Andrew Kerr has said that European programmes to protect silver eels by removing barriers to migration and other threats to the species were being completely undone by eel trafficking. In an interview with the i newspaper he said: “the UK alone is spending £100 million on a four-year cycle to unblock the migration routes of eels. All the good we are doing has been undermined by [eel] trafficking to Asia” (2).

Summary

European eels at the glass eel stage.

The silver eel is one of the most fascinating creatures on planet earth, but it is now classed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, placing it at the same risk of extinction as the black rhinocerous, Sumatran orang-utan or the angel shark. Major threats to this species include over fishing, habitat destruction and barriers such as dams, weirs and culverts blocking migration routes. However, it is the huge demand from Asia which could push this species into extinction. The incredible prices which European silver eel commands in Asia means that criminal gangs and unscrupulous fishermen and fish retailers will always risk illegally exporting this species due to the huge financial rewards available. Until much stronger action is taken, and silver eel smuggling is treated as a much more seriously the trafficking of silver eels is likely to remain the largest wildlife crime on earth.

References:

  1. Eel trafficking in the EU is “the largest wildlife crime on earth – NDTV.com, 21/11/2018.
  2. Trafficking Makes Eel as Valuable as Coctaine – inews.co.uk, 6/9/2019.
  3. Illegal eel exporters exposed by Countryfile – BBC News, 16/6/2019.
  4. Seafood salesman, 67, is convicted of smuggling more than £53 million worth of critically endangered baby eels from London to Hong Kong – Daily Mail, 7/2/2020.
  5. Croatia arrests two South Koreans for eel smuggling – The Korea Times, 8/2/2019.
  6. Illegal eel: black market continues to taint Europe’s eel fishery  – The Guardian, 9/2/2016.
  7. Atlantic and North Sea: agreement on 2019 fishing quotas – Europa.eu, 19/12/2019.
  8. Illegal eel: who is pilfering Europe’s catch? – The Guardian, 31/3/2016.
  9. 3.4 tonnes of seized glass eels reintroduced into their natural habitat – Europol.Europa.eu, 22/6/2018.
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