The European eel’s population has crashed dramatically and it is now classified as critically endangered, with a 90% decline across Europe in the last 30 years. Eel fishing is now very strictly regulated, resulting in a very short season between February and May. The catch is divided, with approximately half going for food and the remainder being used for restocking.
But, the European eel was once abundant, and Britain’s west-facing rivers would glitter silver with the spring tides as hundreds of millions of elvers rushed upstream, having floated from their hatching grounds in the Sargasso Sea.
The decline has resulted in a total ban in exports to Asia, where eels are regarded as having strength-giving properties. The export prohibition has generated a huge black market for eels, with police forces across Europe working to detect and eliminate smuggling rings resulting in the arrest of ‘mules’ attempting to traffic the fish to Asia using specially adapted suitcases. The potential profits make the illegal business as lucrative as drug smuggling, and the law-enforcement authorities admit that the scale of the problem means their success so far has been limited.
Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group admits that the demand in Asia is insatiable and says “This is Europe’s equivalent to ivory smuggling”.
The group was formed by Kerr in 2009 in an attempt to understand why eels were in such a marked decline and to help to accelerate its recovery. The group is leading efforts to bring eel smuggling under control across Europe and monitor gangs trying to infiltrate the UK. Its work has enabled £125m to be pledged to help save the species in Britain with much of the money being used to remove obstacles along waterways that prevent the elvers from travelling upstream.
A delegation to Europol headquarters was led by Kerr at the end of 2015 in a bid to call for urgent action to be taken. An estimated 115 million elvers (33 tonnes) that were legally caught to restock other countries in Europe disappeared last year, with an estimated value of 50m Euros on the black market. After being smuggled into Asia and left to grow in specially-created lagoons, their value increases ten-fold in a single year.
Kerr says ‘It’s definitely organised gangs, and you need an awful lot of mules to move 30 tonnes of eel”.