In the South-West, fishermen are used to seeing these small translucent fish, locally called pibales, wriggle. Or taste them. Born in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic, glass eels, eel fry, migrate each year to the French coast to continue their growth in fresh water. Regularly, customs officers and gendarmes also discover them, alive, in the trunks of vehicles, hangars equipped with basins or suitcases ready to be embarked on a plane.
This protected species, whose fishing is strictly supervised, is the subject of a very lucrative traffic, mainly in the direction of China. The cold-blooded animal resells there for 2,000 to 6,000 € per kilo, compared to 250 to 500 in France on the legal market. “It is very profitable, underlines Michaël Faucher, divisional head of customs in Bordeaux-Mérignac (Gironde), a sector particularly concerned by this illicit trade. There is local poaching, but in recent years we have also seen international fraud organizations set up, with structured networks and a sharing of tasks. It’s a lot like drug trafficking. »
Glass eels banned from export outside the European Union
Last March, GIGN agents intercepted two cars transporting 118 kg of this precious “white gold” from the ocean on the highway, like a “go-fast” for drugs. . Estimated amount of the cargo: €350,000. This price is explained by the conjunction of two phenomena. On the one hand, the European and French authorities have taken measures to protect the so-called European eel, which is threatened with extinction. Glass eel catch quotas have been put in place and their export outside the European Union has been prohibited since 2010.
On the other hand, there is a strong demand for adult eels in Asia, where it is a very popular delicacy, among others in Japan. However, the species also tends to disappear there in the wild and it does not reproduce in captivity. Aquaculture farms located in China therefore have significant needs for fingerlings, which are fattened in tanks. Traffickers have quickly understood the interest of going to stock up on raw material in Europe, a single kilo of glass eels – each measuring less than 12 centimeters – representing 3,000 fish weighing several kilos in the making.
According to Europol, the European police agency, this environmental crime generates billions in turnover. “We can assume that, since the export ban in 2010, trafficking has gradually been organized”, indicates Charlotte Crépon, director of the police and hunting permit department of the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB), a public body on the front line to fight against trafficking as well as to protect the endangered species. “It’s the only one in France with an extremely attractive price for traffickers,” she adds.
Links to organized crime
The network involves unscrupulous professional fishermen, small-time poachers, repeat offenders, Malaysian smugglers and Chinese smugglers. “We always have files in progress, it never stops, explains Guillaume Rulin, project manager at the OFB. Depending on the course of the elver, you can have different types of audience involved, with more or less dangerous people”. Including profiles that may be related to organized crime.
The OFB also collaborates with other State services, such as customs and the Central Office for combating damage to the environment and public health (OCLAESP). In February, investigations led to the spectacular seizure of 302 kg of glass eels in the Val-de-Marne. “We are achieving more and more success in major surveys,” comments Guillaume Rulin. But it is difficult to know if it is linked to the increase in traffic or to the improvement of our performance. »
In terms of illicit trade in protected species, the penalties incurred are seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of €750,000 when the offenses were committed by an organized gang. Poachers risk up to six months in prison and a €50,000 fine. “It’s not a deterrent, it brings in too much money,” said Philipe Garcia, president of the Association for the Defense of Aquatic Environments.
The NGO filed an appeal with the Council of State to have the fishing of glass eels completely banned. “When you authorize legal fishing, you legitimize illegal fishing”, pleads the association manager. The glass eels seized by the police are released into their natural environment. In 20 or 25 years, they will have become silver eels, adults which will return to the Sargasso Sea to die there after reproducing. And the cycle will start again.