Mystery of the eel: Europe’s own ivory trade

The European eel is an endangered species, and trade is banned since 2009. [Marco Maggesi/Shutterstock]

The European Commission has proposed a ban on eel fishing in the Atlantic, in an attempt to recover the dwindling stock of the European eel, a critically endangered species that is traded illegally by an industry that is worth millions of euros.

Eels are mysterious animals: more than 100 million years old, they are born in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean and transported by the Gulf Stream to the coast of Europe, stretching from Egypt to Norway.

Here, baby eels known as ‘elvers’ swim upstream into freshwater basins, where they grow for up to 20 years before making the journey back to the Caribbean and spawn.

But since the 1980s, the number of eels reaching Europe has declined by 95%, and similar declines have been observed in the US and Asia.

Scientists point to a combination of factors: overfishing, parasites, and human-made barriers to the eel’s migration such as disruption to watercourses. And more recently, illegal trade.

“The eel story is one of fighting with man-made engineering over the past 150 years,” said Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group.

The EU-funded research project AMBER mapped more than 1.3 million barriers (turbines, dams, water pumps) which stop and kill migratory fish like salmon and eel.

And unlike all other fish, the eel cannot be farmed: no scientist has ever witnessed eels mating, so all efforts to save eel stocks rely on elvers caught in the wild.

Restocking by raising eels to release later in the wild has shown some results since it was first implemented, but since 2015 there has been little progress.

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Eel law

In 2007 the EU adopted a regulation to save the eel from extinction, requiring states to meet a 40% ‘escapement target’ (the proportion of fish that should be able to reach the sea and spawn), and 19 EU countries promised to save the eel by limiting fishing, reducing man-made barriers, and restocking their rivers and wetlands with farmed eel.

In its latest proposal, the European Commission seeks to “prohibit fishing of eels for all Union waters, following scientific advice emphasising the importance of ceasing all fisheries that target spawners, until there is clear evidence of improvement of the state of the stock”.

But the Commission’s ban on marine fisheries of eel does not impact the illegal trade, according to  Florian Stein, a researcher on the subject: “It sounds nice, but it is very insignificant since there are not much eel fisheries there. Banning fisheries in the marine waters will not save the eel.”

The EU’s competence to regulate fisheries stops at the coast – freshwater, where most eel fisheries (and poaching of elvers) happens, is the prerogative of member states. Yet only France has adopted an eel quota, and reports suggest that it is little enforced.

Europe’s own ivory trade

What’s more, despite the fact that in 2009 the EU banned all trade in eel, every year half of the total European catch of elvers is smuggled illegally outside of Europe, mainly to China, where they farmed, fattened, and sold on as grilled eel.

“Eel food culture in Asia, especially in Japan, is so dominant,” said Stein, “I can’t really think about a European product that is as popular as the eel in Japan. They have an eel holiday. The cultural value is just huge.”

And the economic value too: whereas 1kg of elvers sells for between €100 and €300 on the European legal market, it can be sold illegally for €1,500 or even more, because for every kilo of elvers, there are profits to be made in the millions.

Juan Luis García was at the head of a joint Europol operation which in 2016 led to the arrest of 23 people in Spain and more than €6 million in goods being confiscated. This single criminal cell, exporting elvers from Spain to Hong Kong through Italy and Greece, smuggled seven tonnes in one year.

The Spanish environmental police has been dealing with the illegal eel trade for years: it has arrested fishermen and smugglers, but since the profits are so high, there will be illegal trade, says Luis García: “If you invest €1 in elvers and €1 in cocaine, eels are much more profitable than cocaine.”

The eel comes full cycle

Europol intelligence proves that European eels are finding their way back to Europe, as smoked eel products are falsely labeled as ‘Japanese eel’.

“The only way is to stifle illegal trade is to hit the illegal organisations in China, and control the imports that are made of it,” said Luis García. Under his lead, Europol is initiating a collaboration with Chinese authorities to stop this lucrative trade.

But for now, the phenomenon is growing: the Japanese eel newspaper reported that in 2015, 15 tonnes of European eel elvers were introduced into Asian aquaculture farms. In the winter of 2016/2017, this doubled to 30 tonnes. According to Luis García, this is a very low estimate – he thinks it is double, “probably more”.

“In Europe we have a problem with the eel. It is a species that is in danger, and so far we have not done much.”

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Timeline

The ban on eel fisheries in the Atlantic will be discussed at the Fisheries council on 11 and 12 December.