Eels are one of the ocean's great mysteries, but populations have been trafficked to the verge of extinction. Now eel-smuggling gangs are starting to get their comeuppance
By Alex Diggins
T he goods are stashed in a warehouse on the scruffy outskirts of the Spanish city of Santander. An anonymous building far from the hubbub of holidaymakers on the beach – and from the eyes of the authorities. Inside, it’s dimly lit and quiet. The only sounds are the low hum of electrics and the gurgle of running water. Rows of suitcases line the walls.
The couriers arrive in ones and twos, dressed as tourists to avoid detection. Once at the warehouse, they collect a suitcase and drive to the airport to catch the next plane back to Hong Kong. Hidden from border agents, what they have stashed in their luggage is worth a small fortune. But the groaning suitcases aren’t loaded with drugs or diamonds. Instead these traffickers are smuggling something altogether slimier: European eels.
There is big money in eel smuggling. The illegal global trade in European eels is worth up to £2.5 billion each year. In February this year, Gilbert Khoo, a Malaysian-born seafood trader, was convicted of moving £53 million worth of eels through the UK. Between 2015 and 2017, Khoo snuck 6.5 tons of live baby eels – called ‘glass eels’ – past British border force agents. The eels were caught off the coast of Spain. Khoo then shipped them into the UK and stashed them in a warehouse in Gloucestershire, before flying them out to Hong Kong. There, they were destined for clandestine Chinese farms where they would be reared for dining tables across South-East Asia and beyond.