Eels are one of the ocean’s great mysteries, but populations have been trafficked to the verge of extinction. Now eel-smuggling gangs are starting to get their comeuppance
The goods are stashed in a warehouse on the scruffy outskirts of the Spanish city of Santander. An anonymous building far from the hubbub of holidaymakers on the beach – and from the eyes of the authorities. Inside, it’s dimly lit and quiet. The only sounds are the low hum of electrics and the gurgle of running water. Rows of suitcases line the walls.
The couriers arrive in ones and twos, dressed as tourists to avoid detection. Once at the warehouse, they collect a suitcase and drive to the airport to catch the next plane back to Hong Kong. Hidden from border agents, what they have stashed in their luggage is worth a small fortune. But the groaning suitcases aren’t loaded with drugs or diamonds. Instead these traffickers are smuggling something altogether slimier: European eels.
There is big money in eel smuggling. The illegal global trade in European eels is worth up to £2.5 billion each year. In February this year, Gilbert Khoo, a Malaysian-born seafood trader, was convicted of moving £53 million worth of eels through the UK. Between 2015 and 2017, Khoo snuck 6.5 tons of live baby eels – called ‘glass eels’ – past British border force agents. The eels were caught off the coast of Spain. Khoo then shipped them into the UK and stashed them in a warehouse in Gloucestershire, before flying them out to Hong Kong. There, they were destined for clandestine Chinese farms where they would be reared for dining tables across South-East Asia and beyond.
Since Khoo’s arrest, eel smugglers have grown cannier. “The cat and mouse game between authorities and traffickers has intensified in the last few years,” says Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), and an expert witness at the Khoo trial. Eel traffickers initially transported illegal fish alongside legitimate catch, mislabelling shipments and forging permits. When young, eels look so similar it is impossible without a DNA test to tell the difference between illegal species – like the endangered European eel – and legal fish, such as the short-finned eel. But as law enforcement began to grow wise to these tactics, the smugglers upped their game.
‘Pop-up’ eel stations emerged: disposable properties rented close to where the glass eels were caught so they could be prepared for transport. And traffickers switched from large, easily-inspected containers to portable luggage. Like pet shop goldfish, thousands of writhing glass eels were transported in plastic bags full of water. Airport scanners didn’t automatically flag these bags as suspicious – they looked like bundles of clothes, and security staff were not trained to spot them. The smuggling gangs also realised court proceedings were rarely brought for values less than €50,000 (£45,600). They could stuff suitcases with up to 50,000 glass eel specimens, and usually get away with it.
Until recently, that is. Enforcement has grown tougher. Working with Europol, SEG tracks the number of smugglers arrested during each fishing season, which runs from October to April. This year, 108 were hooked – slightly down on 2018-19 when it was 153, but a big improvement on 2014-15 when only 48 were caught. But these arrests are only “the tip of the iceberg,” warns Kerr. So far, none of the kingpins who control the trade from Hong Kong and mainland China have been netted.
This is very bad news for the European eel. Attempts to breed them in captivity have proved unsuccessful – every eel that ends up in restaurants and supermarkets comes from the same vulnerable wild stocks. And with up to 25 per cent of the glass eel population being trafficked to Asia each year, the trade is deeply unsustainable. It threatens the long-term survival of the species as well as the ecosystems which depend upon them for food. But it also endangers the livelihoods of the farmers, fishermen and smokers who have processed eels for hundreds of years, a vital tradition in Atlantic coastal communities. “If we don’t sort this smuggling out, then the plug is pulled and the water is draining away,” Kerr says.
Humans have eaten European eel for centuries. They can be found carved into the walls of the pyramids in Egypt, pictured on mosaics at Pompeii, and stitched into the Bayeux tapestry. They were once so common that they were used to pay taxes in medieval Britain – the Domesday Book records a debt of 75,000 eels owed by the village of Harmston to Earl Hugh of Chester. Despite this historic importance, their lifecycle remains mysterious. Scientists know the eels breed in spring in the Sargasso Sea – a swathe of the Atlantic bigger than France, Germany and the UK combined. But no one knows exactly when this mating happens, how long it lasts for, or at what depth it takes place. No one has ever seen them at it.
After these obscure nuptials, the eel larvae hitch on prevailing currents to the west-flowing rivers of Europe. Best guesses suggest up to 1.3bn arrive each year. Most end up in the Bay of Biscay – but they have been spotted as far north as Norway. Temperature is the determining factor: eels don’t like water colder than six degrees Celsius. Those which end up in the warmer wetlands and rivers of Portugal and Spain mature in two or three years. More northerly arrivals might take up to half a century. Once fully grown, the eels begin the long journey back across the Atlantic, via the Azores, to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean.
These epic annual migrations went uninterrupted until the mid-twentieth century. But drainage of wetlands, increased water pollution, and Europe’s hydroelectric power stations proved disastrous. European eel numbers crashed between 1980 and 2010, falling to ten per cent of what they were in the 1960s. This drop triggered their designation as a critically endangered species – and brought in legislation banning their export. Yet as their numbers fell, the Asian market for their meat grew. Demand could not be met by the local Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica, which is not endangered, and so unscrupulous suppliers began to illegally import the more numerous European eel.
“It’s a different dimension when you compare European and Chinese production,” says Florian Stein, SEG’s director of science. Armed with satellite data and company records, he has tried to map out the extent of Chinese eel aquaculture. He believes there are approximately 900 farms operating in the provinces close to the trafficking hub of Hong Kong. The whole industry is controlled by a few families, he says. And some farms are massive. One has an annual production of 10,000 tons – more than Europe’s entire output. Profits are suitably hefty, too. By SEG’s calculations, a catch of 3,500 glass eels weighing one kilo might fetch €300 (£260) when caught in Spanish and Portuguese waters. But that rises to €1,000 (£870) once they are trafficked out of Europe. And a year or so down the line, by the time the mature eels hit Asian wholesalers and supermarkets, they have a value of €25,800 (£22,400). To break this supply chain “enforcement has to increase,” says Florian. “If the pressure eases, the smugglers will simply find new ways of getting the eels out.”
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OUR MEMBER: SUSTAINABLE EEL GROUP (SEG)
The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) is the leading international organisation seeking to accelerate the conservation and management of the European eel. SEG aims for healthy eel populations, distributed throughout their natural range, fulfilling their role in the aquatic environment and supporting sustainable use for the benefit of local economies. Key to this is the collaboration of the scientific, conservation and commercial sectors. SEG initiates and supports scientific research, conservation projects and organises stakeholders’ commitment. Additionally, it provides a standard for a responsible eel sector with traceability from source to market.