The Subtle Emergence of an Eel Trafficking Mafia

“More Profitable Than Coke”

4,000 euros a kilo: the “trifle” that glass eel traffickers can hope to make on their export, according to Le Parisien. This fortune is highly tempting to poachers, especially in France.

Eel traffickers are at work on every continent; a kilo of eels sells, in Japan, for more money than a kilogram of caviar,” wrote the overwhelmed environmental defense association Robin des bois in its newsletter on January 1, 2014. Alain Coudray, president of a committee of fisheries in the west of France, seconded the statement: “Glass eels are almost as profitable as coke… and less troublesome to traffic in.

Two key factors explain the soaring price of illegally sold glass eels. The eels are highly popular in Asian markets, where their selling price can reach 5,000 euros per kilo. In addition, fishing for this declining species is highly regulated. France has introduced fishing quotas; the Robin des bois association notes that “France authorizes the capture of 26 tons of glass eels for human consumption, which, as the average glass eel weighs half a gram, equals about 52 million eels.” At the international level, glass eels have been protected since 2010 under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which limits their trade to the European Union.


An Endangered Species In the Hands of the Mafia

The stakes are high, and those in power are cracking down. On December 6, prosecutors demanded sentences of up to two years of imprisonment and a €30,000 fine for nine people suspected of involvement in the illegal resale of fish larva in Nantes. These were no local fishermen, reported Ouest-France, but rather an “organized network.”

Glass eels have found themselves propelled into a market where they “triple in value at each stage,” reported the AFP at the Criminal Court of Bordeaux. The language used throughout the hearing was significant: “heads of the network,” “organized network structure,” “open get-away cars”… If the financial benefits of eel trafficking correspond to the trafficking of drugs, so do the logistics that come with it.

Sometimes, the lucrative trade in eels even “takes precedence over drug trafficking, where the risk is greater and the financial rewards pretty much the same,” stated Nathalie Quéran for the Ministry of Justice.

Aware of the rise in eel trafficking, authorities are organizing their response. In June of 2017, under the leadership of EUROPOL, OCLAESP (French Gendarmerie) teams seized 1.2 tons of the protected species during Operation CIVELLES II. Similar actions have been carried out in Portugal and the United Kingdom.

1  ‘Le trafic de civelles, nouveau trafic de stups’, Sciences et Avenir, June 2018.

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