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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Ensuring the End of the “Eel-Iicit” Trade: Operation Showcases FWS’ International Coordination

   European eel Mature European eel. Photo by Roland Lupoli/CC BY-NC 4.0, sourced at iNaturalist

The theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day, celebrated March 3, was “Sustaining all Life on Earth.” With nearly a quarter of the Earth’s species facing the risk of going extinct in the coming decades, international coordination is increasingly important to ensure the survival of species – in particular where the species’ range is transnational or it is threatened by unsustainable demand from more than one country. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is one such species. 

The European eel is widely distributed and depending on its life-cycle stage can be found in aquatic ecosystems in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, as well as all the way to the Caribbean where it starts and ends its life cycle. As a catadromous fish – meaning it lives in freshwater and enters salt water to spawn – European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. The eggs and larvae are carried over one to three years by the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current toward the European and North African coasts. Young eels, known as “glass eels,” eventually mature in freshwater habitats from silver eels to mature eels. The mature eels journey back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die. This lengthy life cycle (~25 years) and nearly 4,000-mile journey leaves European eels susceptible to several threats including habitat loss and modification, migration barriers, pollution, parasitism, fluctuating oceanic conditions and exploitation for human consumption.

   graphic of eel's life cycleThe life cycle of American and European eels are fascinating. After spawning in the Sargasso Sea, they migrate in the larval stage to freshwater habitats on the Eastern Seaboard (American) and the European and North African coasts (European). In coastal waters and into the freshwater ecosystems, they develop into glass eels and over time into adults before returning to the open ocean to spawn. Illustration by Eric S. Taylor, WHOI Graphic Services, with stage sketches by Salvor Gissurardottir

Although it is protected by law, demand for European eel consumption remains high in Europe and Asia. Protecting this species requires strong collaboration between targeted international law enforcement efforts.

In 2007, at the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Parties agreed to include the European eel in CITES Appendix II, to help ensure that international trade is legal and sustainable.  And in March 2009, the listing came into force.  This action by CITES Parties was in recognition that populations of the European eel had decreased significantly – approximately 90 percent over three decades.  Subsequently, the European Union adopted the Eel Regulation (EC No. 1100/2007) and started enforcing a zero export quota to further ensure protection and sustainable use of the species.

Caught and traded mostly for human consumption, adult eels are targeted for their meat while young glass eels are collected to be grown to marketable size in aquaculture farms. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL) estimates that about 100 tons of baby eels are trafficked abroad each year. Trafficking involves a myriad of crimes (often transnational crime) including environmental crime, smuggling, document fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. To combat these crimes, international coordination between CITES Parties and law enforcement in different countries is necessary.
In April of 2019, the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and 14 member states of the European Union participated in a second iteration of the Wildlife Crime Working Group Intersessional Activity to combat illegal trade in the European eel, named Operation 'Eel-Licit' Trade. During the operational period, imports of frozen eel meat from China were inspected and genetically sampled to determine species and compliance with CITES. During the course of the operation, Canada conducted a market survey and, despite no legal nexus for importation into Canada, determined nearly 50 percent of the eel meat in Canadian markets to be European eel. Australia also determined six shipments to contain illegal European eel. In the United States, several imports with illegal, unreported European eel were discovered upon genetic analysis and many were further determined to be contaminated with the prohibited substance, “malachite green."


4 people hold something and look at camera   From left: USFWS Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the North Atlantic-Appalachian Interior Region, Jeff Odom; CITES Secretary General, Ivonne Higuero; USFWS Division of Management Authority Chief, Pamela Scruggs; and USFWS Office of Law Enforcement Deputy Assistant Director, Luis Santiago hold broiled eel. Photo by Amy Snyder/USFWS

During the course of the operation, the CITES Secretariat General (SG), Ivonne Higuero, visited the Port of Newark, New Jersey and participated in inspections with representatives from the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement and International Affairs program. During her visit, SG Higuero was briefed on the issue of illegal trade in Anguilla species and observed the seizure of a large consignment of illegal eel meat, held at a perishable freezer storage facility. Across the United States, authorities interdicted several shipments containing illegal and undeclared European eel. Authorities also interdicted shipments which contained covertly marked, illegal product from a container that was refused entry  during an August 2018 operation, and smuggled back into the U.S. utilizing different company names, addresses and container numbers.

2 photos of FWS inspectors going through stuff   Operation “Eel-Icit” Trade investigation at the Port of Newark Photos by Pamela Scruggs/USFWS

The operation proved successful in interdicting significant illegal trade in CITES-listed species and in coordinating international cooperation to combat the illegal trade, including with China. As a direct result of the operations, at least one investigation has been initiated by Chinese authorities and one container of refused and re-exported eel meat was seized in Hong Kong. In addition to the seizure of nearly 600,000 CITES specimens (filets), the Service has initiated two felony smuggling investigations in collaboration with Chinese authorities.

2 photos of FWS inspectors going through stuff   Operation “Eel-Icit” Trade investigation at the Port of Newark Photos by Pamela Scruggs/USFWS

“Operation Eel-Licit Trade highlights what a coordinated global law enforcement action may achieve,” said the Office of Law Enforcement, Deputy Assistant Director, Luis Santiago.  “Working collaboratively with our counterparts around the world, we were able to remove illegal eel shipments from the marketplace, some of which were treated with a compound known to be toxic to humans.”

“Being part of this investigation and participating in the sampling of eel shipments was an eye-opening and inspiring experience,” said Pamela Scruggs, who implements CITES as Chief of the Division of Management Authority within the Service’s International Affairs program. “Knowing that this was a small part of a successful, coordinated effort across numerous countries gives me hope that we can collaborate at the scale needed to prevent the extinction of species like the European eel.”

This is just one of many examples of success in collaborating to combat wildlife trafficking and provides some hope for conserving and protecting endangered species. This World Wildlife Day, we celebrate our responsibility of protecting the Earth’s wildlife while acknowledging that there is more work to do. Together, we will continue harnessing our expertise in science, management and law enforcement while coordinating with other countries to sustain all life on Earth.

By Jenell Walsh-Thomas, PhD, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, International Affairs, and Bryan Landry, Office of Law Enforcement

Thanks for this article. The photo 'Migration pattern of the European eel' seems to illustrate the migration pattern of the American eel.
# Posted By | 3/5/20 4:52 AM
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