Some call it the new “white gold”: a traffic in glass eels, an eel fry threatened with extinction and sold at a high price in Asia, with an estimated value of 18.5 million euros, was dismantled in France by the gendarmerie and customs, after four years of investigation.
Some 46 tonnes exported since 2017 to the Asian continent, where the price per kilo can climb up to 4,000 euros: it is a traffic “of international scope” that has dropped the customs of Bordeaux and the Central Office for the fight against environmental and public health damage (Oclaesp).
Exports were masked by the use of false documents implying the shipment of other species, such as shrimp, conger eels or carp. Since the scarcity of the Asian eel caused by overfishing, “the demand for European glass has exploded in South-East Asia”, according to the gendarmerie. For several years now, it has been whetting the appetites of smugglers, who are closely watched by customs.
It is by drawing the thread of two seizures made in 2017 by the customs officers of Arcachon (Gironde) and Roissy, of 792 kg and 200 kg of glass eels, that the investigators, under the leadership of the interspecialized jurisdiction (Jirs de Bordeaux ), have managed to trace it back to the network.
A market worth several billion euros
Poached on the Atlantic side, the elvers – called “pibales” in the southwest of France – were transported to Spain, a classic circuit. They were then transported to Asian countries, in particular via logistics platforms set up in Eastern countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria or Poland.
The investigations made it possible to demonstrate the use of shell companies created in Europe and in tax havens (Ireland, Panama), the complicity of companies established in China and Thailand and the use of retro-commissions through contracts on transactions between Africa and Asia.
Nine French wholesalers and intermediaries were indicted in September 2019. Then, in 2021, the Spanish managers of a transport company as well as one of the heads of the network, also Spanish.
Traffic to Asian markets is estimated at several billion euros, according to the Sustainable Eel Group association. This smuggling of the European eel known as “Anguilla Anguilla” is one of the causes of the fall in 30 years of 75% of its population. The species has been considered threatened since the 2000s.