Traders proving slippery as eel trafficking soars

(Reuters) - Efforts to protect the endangered European eel are struggling to cope as demand from Asia draws traffickers tempted by fat profits, according to industry experts.

The illegal trade is now estimated to be worth around 3 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) a year, according to the Sustainable Eel Group.

“You can get up to 100,000 glass eels into a suitcase. And if they’re leaving Europe at a euro each then that’s 100,000...and then at the other end, you grow them on in a pond in China and a year later that’s a million. A million euros worth,” Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, told Reuters.

“Japan, China, South Korea, they are all great eel eaters. But remember, they’re also re-exporting them to North America and back to Europe again,” said Kerr.

Some 15 million European eels have been seized in the last year with 153 arrests in the European Union marking a 50% rise on the year before, Europol data showed last month.

The European eel is classified as critically endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The exporting and importing of European eels has been banned in the EU since 2010. However, Europol says 300-350 million European eels are illegal trafficked from Europe to Asia every year.

Eel trafficking has become Europol’s “flagship operation in terms of environmental crime,” Europol operations specialist Jose Antonio Alfaro Moreno told a conference hosted last month by the Sustainable Eel Group.

Reporting by Katie Gregory and George Sargent; editing by Jason Neely