German customs agents release thousands of confiscated eels into the Rhine River

Authorities discovered the glass eels in checked luggage bound for Vietnam at Frankfurt Airport in late November. A delicacy purported to increase virility in Asia, the protected fish can bring huge profits for sellers.

German customs agents released some 5,000 confiscated baby eels into the Rhine River near Mainz on Tuesday.

Germany | 22.05.2012

Authorities found the fish in a bag checked at Frankfurt Airport by a 47-year-old Malaysian woman en route to Vietnam in late November.

Read more: Forty years of fighting for endangered species

Customs agents say the eels, known as glass eels due to their transparent state, were packed in water-filled plastic bags inside Styrofoam boxes in the woman's suitcase.

Nature and Environment | 29.05.2018

The woman will not face charges as the discovery was made after her flight had already taken off. with her bag impounded in Frankfurt.

It is unclear where exactly the woman got the tiny fish but authorities suggest they may have come from estuaries in southwestern Europe. Glass eels are a protected species and cannot be exported without special permission. 

Big profits with tiny fish

Whereas one kilo of eels sells for roughly €400 ($455) in Germany, they are seen as a potency-increasing delicacy in Asia, where the same amount of eels can fetch between €3,000 and €5,000.

Eel populations in the Rhine have been dwindling for decades and their numbers are so low that they have been listed as an endangered species. Although young eels are regularly released into the river, this was the first time that confiscated animals had ever been released back into the wild by customs agents in Germany.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Frankfurt Customs Investigations Office Spokesman Hans-Jürgen Schmidt said of the eel release: "They clearly enjoyed being returned to their element."      

Protecting marine life

While patrolling the South Indian Ocean, Sea Shepherd crew onboard the "Steve Irwin" retrieved an abandoned driftnet that was about 5 kilometers long - twice the maximum legally allowed length. Pulling in the net, they could already feel the weight of death. Once they brought the net on board, they realized the extent of the damage.

The carnage of bycatch

Retrieved from the illegal driftnet were 321 bodies of dead marine animals; 20 could be returned to the ocean alive. Critically endangered animals were among the 12 species caught. Captain Siddharth Chakravarty believes sharks were the target species, to be sold for their liver and skin. All the rest ended up as bycatch - unwanted animals caught along with the rest.

Driven by markets

Of the 300-plus animals in the net, 126 were blue sharks. The blue shark is listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Around 20 millions are killed each year for their meat, fins, liver and skin - primarily for markets in China and elsewhere in East Asia.

Few escape death

From all the marine life recorded in the confiscated driftnet, only 20 specimens were alive and could be put back into the sea. Eighteen blue sharks, one molamola fish and a squid were among the few lucky ones. Two entangled brown seals, however, were part of the unfortunate majority.

Critical for critically endangered species

Such high amount of bycatch is generally bad news - but it's even worse when the bycatch also includes critically endangered species, such as southern bluefin tuna. Found dead in the driftnet were 25 members of this declining population. The species has been intensively fished for its highly prized meat.

Crime scene investigation

The look on the face of this crew member holding a dead dolphin leaves no doubt: This represents a tragedy for the Sea Shepherd team. But the retrieved drift net will be used as physical evidence, required to complete a land-based investigation and prosecute the fishermen responsible for this illegal practice.

Tracking poaching vessels

The Steve Irwin is still trying to track the Chinese-flagged fleet that set the illegal net. This aerial photo shows one of the vessels near a long illegal driftnet. According to Captain Siddharth Chakravarty, such driftnets can be up to 20 kilometers long - a legal net is limited to 2.5 kilometers in length.

To be continued ...

Captain Chakravarty, pictured above, says the fleet responsible for this illegal driftnet has perpetrated at least 11 violations of international law, including: fishing with large-scale pelagic drift nets; unreported shark catch; retaining juvenile sharks onboard; and catching critically endangered southern bluefin tuna as a non-signatory party. This will form the basis of an official accusation.

js/jm (AFP, dpa)

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