Unabated smuggling threatens European eel with extinction

A man fishing for eels in a small boat.

Authorities across Europe continued cracking down on the illegal trade of the endangered European eel in 2023, but the species is still at risk, according to Europol,  the law enforcement agency of the European Union.

Eels are a target for smugglers as their hatchling form – elvers, or “glass eels” as they are sometimes known – are extremely valuable. The tiny baby eels can be worth as much as EUR 1.00 (USD 1.10) each – and their small size means a kilogram worth of elvers can fetch thousands of euros.

Europol first announced its increased effort to stop European eel trafficking in 2019, and has subsequently completed multiple high-profile busts of eel smuggling rings. Through “Operation Lake,” it has caught hundreds of smugglers, including a huge bust in 2021 that nabbed 108 suspects and resulted in the seizure of EUR 6.2 million (then USD 5.5 million) worth of smuggled elvers. 

In the most recent Operation Lake operation, which ran from October 2022 to June 2023, Europol arrested 256 people involved with trafficking 25 metric tons (MT) of live elvers, worth roughly EUR 13 million (USD 14.3 million). Law enforcement agencies from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic,  Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Colombia, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, North Macedonia, Serbia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the U.S. were involved in the crackdown.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) granted the agency a certificate of commendation for the operation's success.

“Europol has built its knowledge and expertise on environmental crime through the investigations it supports. Operation Lake targeting the trafficking of glass eels is one such coordinated action, with over 30 countries joining the latest edition in 2023,” Europol Deputy Executive Director of Operations Jean-Philippe Lecouffe said during the award ceremony. “In this field more than ever, international cooperation is paramount – our success is not solely down to our work, but is also made possible thanks to the collaboration and support we have received from the member states that are very active in the field of environmental preservation.”

Despite the continued enforcement, elver smuggling remains a critical issue, including the U.S. and Canada. In Canada, rampant poaching during the country’s elver fishery forced it to shut down all fishing, with residents near fishing areas witnessing men in balaclavas poaching elvers, CBC reported. Yet the Canada Border Services Agency said it did not find any evidence of black-market shipments of baby elvers out of the country, according to the CBC.

Recently, a man in Spain was detained and found smuggling EUR 200,000 (USD 220,000) worth of live elvers, Euro Weekly News reported.

According to a 20 December 2023 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), further protection of eels may be needed to prevent their extinction in the Mediterranean. In 2020, the migration of young eels in Europe reached an all-time low, and a report found habitat loss and poor harmonization between fisheries management measures is leaving the species vulnerable. 

The FAO said action is needed on multiple levels if eels in Europe and the Mediterranean are to ever recover.

“The European eel, the habitats that host its different life stages and the livelihoods it sustains require action and protection on all fronts: biological, environmental, socioeconomic,” General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean Fishery Resource Officer Elisabetta Betulla Morello said in a release. “Cooperation is essential for identifying and implementing adequate measures, not only to manage fisheries but also to protect the environment and the socioeconomic setting revolving around this species.”  

Photo courtesy of the FAO/Claudia Amico


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500