Juvenile freshwater eels, known as glass eels, are a delicacy in China
Eels are at risk of disappearing from France’s rivers because of an illegal trade spurred on by spiralling prices in Asia. Sellers in Asia generally look for eels that have been caught before they are fully grown, when they are known as ‘glass eels’ because their bodies are largely transparent. A prized delicacy in the Far East, where the endangered fish can fetch higher prices than caviar, the baby eels are five to 10 cm long and weigh only 0.6 grams.
Organised, criminal gangs are believed to have become increasingly involved in the fast-growing trade in recent months, French police believe. Eels caught in France often transit through several European countries, according to Charlotte Nithart of the French environmental group Robin des Bois (Robin Hood).
“Eels are almost as profitable as cocaine and a lot less risky,” Ms Nithart said. “Glass eels can sell for up to €4,000 (more than £3,500) in Japan or Hong Kong, which is more than some varieties of caviar. If things continue as they are, there will soon be none left in our rivers.”
A 200kg shipment valued at more than £1 million was intercepted at Heathrow Airport last February. The 600,000 eels, hidden in a consignment of frozen fish bound for Hong Kong, had arrived from Spain, which has become a hub for transporting glass eels caught in France, according to Ms Nithart. French police arrested a network of 13 eel traffickers this year after a five-month investigation involving about 100 officers. But only about 10 per cent of illegal glass eel shipments are detected, according to campaigners.
Fisherman catching glass eels on the Loire River
“We want France and other European countries to step up controls to try to stop the traffickers,” Ms Nithart said. “The European eel is an endangered species. This can be compared to the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks or tiger parts. The survival of the species is at risk.” The 2011 earthquake and tsunami which hit the east coast of Japan destroyed eel farms, causing a surge in demand and prices. Eels are used in sushi or grilled and served with rice in Japan.
Catching glass eels is not illegal in France, but it is restricted to professionals and only limited quotas are permitted. The EU bans their export. Europol estimates that eel traffickers earn more than £32 million a year from illegal exports to Asia. “This trade has led to a big decline in numbers, compounded by legal fishing and pollution of rivers with PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls, formerly used in electrical equipment],” Ms Nithart said.