A slippery subject: European eel trafficking in criminology teaching

Richard Hester and Nick Pamment discuss illegal trafficking of the European eel and why this makes an interesting case in criminology teaching.

Richard Hester
Nick Pamment

Since 2008, European eels (Anguilla anguilla) have been classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as ‘Critically Endangered’. This was following decades of declining populations and calls for action to protect the European eel, due to a range of threats to the population including trade (both legal and illegal). Albeit a potentially biased viewpoint, the Chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, Andrew Kerr, describes the European eel as the world’s most trafficked animal “by number and value” and “the greatest wildlife crime on the planet”. Perhaps there is some truth to that, as the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regard European eel trafficking as a serious problem, devoting an entire chapter on the species in their World Wildlife Crime Report.

Given the concerns over the environmental impact of trade on the species, the European eel was listed in CITES Appendix II at CoP14 and since 2010, the export of European eels from the EU has been banned. This means that European eels can only be legally traded between EU member states, as well as specific countries that have been granted a CITES no detriment status, such as Morocco and Tunisia.  The UNODC reported that this initially led to a decline in eel production from Chinese aquaculture farms, but this promptly recovered to previous levels, emphasising that the multi-billion-pound industry appears to be reliant on European eel trafficking. Research has shown that, despite no officially reported imports to Hong Kong, European eel is commonly sold in major supermarkets across the region. This highlights how the species has entered mainstream distribution for the average consumer.

Despite the prominence of illegal wildlife trafficking in interdisciplinary research, the plight of the European eel is largely unexplored in criminological inquiry, with environmental science and ecology journals being the main sources. Instead, criminology and social sciences focus on more iconic species with a longer history of trafficking, such as rhino, elephant, tiger, and shark. Even when students in our green criminology or wildlife crime classes are asked to list animals that are subject to illegal trade, nobody ever says eels. A key text for Green Criminology reading lists,  the Routledge International Handbook of Green Criminology,  makes no reference to the more emerging issue of the illegal eel trade, neither does a more focused text, The Illegal Wildlife Trade: Inside the World of Poachers, Smugglers and Traders. Arguably, there is a lack of awareness about conservation criminology that focuses on European eels.

However, European eels are an attractive proposition for organised criminal groups. In 2018, €9m worth of illegally trafficked eels were seized, which represents only a tiny fraction of the total amount trafficked. The chances of being caught are low, as evidenced by the first (and, to date, only) ever seizure and conviction within the UK of Gilbert Khoo for trafficking European eels out of the UK in 2020. Arguably, this is indicative of the lack of resources dedicated to policing this issue, with wildlife crime not featuring in the National Crime Agency (NCA) Priorities or National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime.  Whilst the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit lists European eels as a current priority, they are a small team and hampered by “finite resources”, an endemic problem with UK wildlife law enforcement. Eel trafficking represents a low risk, high reward area of criminality. Indeed, in the case of Khoo, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued a self-congratulatory press release upon securing the conviction. However, it is only in the footnotes where it is revealed that Khoo received a two-year suspended prison sentence and unpaid work for trafficking £53m worth of European eels from the UK to Malaysia and Hong Kong. It is fair to question whether this sentence is commensurate with other organised crimes, such as narcotics supply or people trafficking.

Brexit and rule changes have complicated the trading situation of the European eel, as the legal market has become more complex and turbulent. As of 1 January 2021, England, Wales, and Scotland ceased to be part of the EU single market, whilst Northern Ireland retained the EU trading rules. As the UK is no longer an EU member state, this leaves the UK in a curious position of not having a market to which to sell European eels. This situation will likely lead to an increase in trafficking of European eels from the UK to Asia. This assertion should be considered as inevitable, as the evidence shows that the UK has a desirable eel product that cannot be legally sold, and there is an active and lucrative illicit eel market in areas such as Hong Kong, which is relying on illegally sourced European eel. Criminal activity will be happening (if it is not already) in rural areas of England such as Gloucestershire, where organised crime groups seek to ensure that the available product is matched to the illicit market. Whilst major inroads have been made regarding the breadth of criminology and the study of animal harms, criminological teaching and research needs to explore this issue so it is not just regarded as an ecological problem. Moreover, law enforcement needs to do more to prevent the trafficking and associated offences from occurring. Students always find European eel trafficking a fascinating case study, and not something that they necessarily think of when choosing to do a criminology degree. Inclusion of European eel trafficking in the criminology curriculum will help to raise awareness about this critical issue.

About the authors

Richard Hester – Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire and module tutor for a Level 6 module: “Green Criminology”.

Nick Pamment – Principal Lecturer at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice , University of Portsmouth. Nick is the Course Leader for the BSc (Hons) Criminology with Environmental Justice and teaches modules relating to wildlife crime and green criminology.


Richard Hester


University of Gloucestershire – Staff Profile

Nick Pamment


University of Portsmouth – Staff Profile

This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the British Society of Criminology or the institution they work for.

Prison leadership during Covid

Personal reflections of a prison governor during two years of Covid restrictions and the pressures and challenges faced by staff and prisoners

Lynn Saunders is Professor of Applied Criminology and Head of Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby. Until 2021 she worked for HM Prisons and Probation Service in England as a Governor, most recently as Governor of HMP Whatton, a medium secure (category C) prison for people with sexual convictions.

This blog follows a paper delivered to the British Society of Criminology Midlands branch.

In March 2020 Prisons in England and Wales like the wider community were subject to a range of restrictions to protect people from the transmission of a highly contagious and deadly airborne virus that was spreading across the world. Little was known about its transmission and why certain groups, the elderly and those who had pre-existing medical conditions were particularly susceptible to potentially fatal infections and prisons, along with other places that were crowded, poorly ventilated, and unhygienic were considered to be particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. At the outset officials at the MoJ were warned that unless drastic measures were taken to control the transmission of the virus, as many as 3500 of the then 82000 prison population would die from it. People with a range of health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or with supressed immune systems and those who were elderly were considered to be particularly vulnerable.


I became the governor of HM Prison Whatton, a large 841 place site for people with sexual convictions in 2008 where I remained for 13 years until October 2021. Whatton is a specialist treatment site providing a range of cognitive behaviourally based treatment programmes. It provided 40% of the programmes in custody for the whole of the prison service. At the time I left eighteen percent of the population was over 60 years of age and 58 people were over 70. During my time in Whatton, the oldest resident was 93. In my 13 years as governor of Whatton there were 69 deaths. Some of these were sudden unexpected deaths (heart attacks, strokes, etc) but the majority were expected, largely due to cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or other long-term conditions. Whatton is a very large site. Forty per cent of the cells are very small and not build for the elderly, or those with physical health needs.

Covid in prison the early days

Self-evidently the covid pandemic, and its impact on prisons was unprecedented. In March 2020 the Government issued a directive to people to work from home in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. The day after this directive it was with some level of anxiety that I arrived for work. Would staff stay home? Would there be sufficient staff to ensure the safety and well-being of the prisoners? Would the healthcare and catering staff attend work? Would I be able to keep prisoners safe?

The prison regime became severely restricted because of the Government instructions. The usual regime at Whatton involved the unlock of prisoners 10.5 hours a day. As a result of the restrictions prisoners were locked in their cells for 23 hours per day. Time in the open air was arranged on a rotational basis, but this was time consuming and staff intensive (as groups of prisoners needed to be unlocked and locked up again in small groups rather than en masse). Medication was delivered to prisoners in their cells by healthcare staff members three times a day (a mammoth task due to the size of the prison and the numbers of people receiving medication). Visits, programmes and all but essential work (such as kitchens, cleaning, prisoner canteen) were cancelled. During the first few weeks of the lockdown panic buying resulted in food shortages in supermarkets in the community. This meant that staff had to queue for food when they left work, only to find that there was little available on the shelves when they reached the front of the queue. So initially, the staff mess facility provided a meal to every member of staff who was on duty to ensure that they had proper access to food and an additional freezer was hired to store pre-pared frozen meals if all the catering staff were ill or isolating.

During the first week of lockdown the Coroner rang me to suggest that I should buy some body bags as it was not certain that the coroners system could cope with the volume of the expected deaths. That first week of the lockdown three Whatton prisoners died from Covid. This was to say the least very troubling particularly since at this point there was no vaccine, no testing, and very limited personal protective equipment available for staff or prisoners.

Subsequently, HMPPS HQ instructed that prisons should move into “command mode”. This is a process used in major incidents in prisons when decisions are made centrally. Local incidents such as fires, roof top protests, hostage taking, or concerted indiscipline (riots) are managed locally with central oversight. This means that decisions can be made in the light of local circumstances. However, the decision was made that all prisons regardless of their role, function, security category, layout or population would be subject to the same instructions and regime. This obviously had significant drawbacks, not least because covid levels differed in different geographical areas and different populations had differing levels of vulnerability (juvenile and young offender institutions had lower levels of risk for example). Comfort packs consisting of a range of confectionary were issued to each prisoner, a £5 weekly phone credit, and distraction packs were introduced to help support those at risk of self-harm. Central approval was required to move people between prisons and four levels of lockdown introduced. Prisons needed to operate within approved and agreed Establishment Delivery Modules (EDM’s) and were not able to move up (allowing more time unlocked and fewer restrictions without approval from the central team).

October 2020

Outbreaks of covid in prisons were relatively low level until the autumn of 2020. However, HMP Lowdham Grange experienced a significant outbreak with 177 prisoners affected. At this point face masks were introduced across the system for staff and prisoners as was regular on-site testing (both LFT and PCR). A vaccination programme was introduced for prisoners in accordance with national community rollout (initially where people aged over 80 and those deemed clinically vulnerable were prioritised). Prison staff were not prioritised for vaccination despite acknowledgement from the Scientific Advisory Group (SAGE) that prison staff were amongst the most vulnerable occupational groups to infection. HMP Whatton became on outbreak site due to the number of infections, as a result Public Health England in keeping with agreed policy took over responsibility for the management of the outbreak. The outbreak lasted for six months with significant restrictions for prisoners. Large numbers of staff were infected and only two members of the Senior Management Team were not positive or isolating with covid during this time.

Personal reflections

It was undoubtedly, a truly awful experience. Prisoners were locked up for 23 hours for months and months.  Staff were tired and worn down by the relentlessness of the restricted and labour-intensive regime. The governor of a prison has the authority in “normal times” to make decisions and to be accountable for them. During this period there was no control or power to make crucial decisions as these were determined by a central remote team. This was both frustrating and worrying. Prisoners were not able to access offending behaviour programmes and so they were not able to progress through their sentence. Sometimes it was difficult to see the rationale for the centrally made decisions, by people who had never visited the prison. It is often commented that initially violence reduced across the whole prison estate as a result of the lockdown restrictions, but unsurprisingly the number of people suffering from mental health issues both staff and prisoners increased.


This was an especially awful two years for both prisoners and staff. It will take some time before the recovery process can begin, and for the prison staff to rebuild constructive regimes that support rehabilitation to prepare people for the next stage in their sentence or for release. At the time of writing restrictions on activities, visits and work remain and testing of prison staff continues despite these restrictions being lifted in the wider community. The impact of these limitations will continue to have a significant impact on both prisoners and prison staff for many years to come.

About the author

Lynn Saunders worked for HMPPS as a prison governor for 29 years most recently at Governor of HMP Whatton. She left in October 2021 and works as Professor of Applied Criminology and Head of Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby


Professor Lynn Saunders OBE

University of Derby


This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the British Society of Criminology or the institution she works for.

Amazon: When a Crime is Not a Crime

Jana Macfarlane Horn

Six people died during a tornado in an Amazon warehouse on 10th December 2021 in Edwardsville, Illinois. Media reports “Deadly tornadoes, storms strike US; roof collapse at Amazon and “Six dead, no hope of more survivors after tornadoes destroy Amazon warehouse” rather than ‘Amazon forces employees to work during extreme weather conditions, causing six deaths for their lack of storm shelters in place’. Put more simply: why is corporate crime not a crime?

Amazon – Corporate Health and Safety

Amazon is a multinational corporation that employs more than 1.5 million people worldwide, with a net income of $33.4 billion for the year 2021. Their warehouse operation focusses on completing fast product distributions, offering next-day deliveries. This means people need to be working round the clock to be able to honour all orders, a timely delivery of goods is the key component of the business organisation. Many times, the pressure created by Amazon’s fast turn-around is reflected in the warehouses – employees are evaluated on their productivity to maximise their capacity and to prevent employing more people, a common business model adopted by most western corporations.

The working conditions in Amazon warehouses are exacerbated by the fact that Amazon in the US, along with its CEO Jeff Bezos have adopted a covert anti-union stance. In one warehouse facility in Alabama, Amazon hired a law firm that was supporting anti-union propaganda and intimidating workers who wanted to join the union before the vote was cast. This resulted in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filing charges of unfair labour practice with the National Labor Relations Board as Amazon clearly interfered with the results of the vote.

Amazon warehouse workers also report lacking the ability to take any time off from November until after New Year amidst Black Friday and Christmas shopping peaks; having to take annual leave to go to doctors’ appointments, and having to work mandatory overtime. There are also “productivity” hours when the fastest and hardest working employees are given prizes, often consisting of tokens they can spend in the warehouse cafeteria rather than financial bonuses. There have also been reports of frequent ambulance visits to many warehouses due to overworking, as well as a report of two deaths within hours of being denied sick leave. Another questionable practice includes forcing warehouse employees to work through extreme weather – a case that has proven fatal to six employees in Edwardsville. Reports from New York warehouses staying open and functional through a snowstorm, or during Pacific Northwest heatwaves confirm that corporate profit is clearly more important to Amazon than workers’ safety.

By focussing on profitability and timely delivery rather than health and safety, Amazon is clearly responsible for creating harmful working conditions which in December amounted to the preventable deaths of six employees. Yet, mainstream media channels rarely report corporate wrongdoing as crime. This raises important questions: why do incidents of this character keep happening and why is no one labelling them as crimes?

Why Don’t We Recognise Corporate Crime as Crime?

The failure to consider corporate crime as crime is rooted in its neglect within Criminology and subsequently reflected in public perceptions which are communicated through media. Amazon’s (in)actions can be situated under the umbrella of corporate crime. Corporate crimes are actions and omissions perpetrated by corporations that are punishable under criminal, civil, regulatory, and administrative laws. As these actions involve a wide spectrum of offences, ranging from corporate manslaughter, environmental damage to financial and consumer frauds; it is almost impossible to unify a general theory about them within Criminology. This is further complicated by the fact that some corporate crimes question the very core concept of Criminology – what should and should not be crime in two ways. One, corporate crime fails to fulfil the traditional definition of criminality as it may include non-individual offenders, acts that span across long timeframes, and no mens rea. Two, it may include acts that are not criminal, but cause discernible and avoidable harms (such as environmental damage or fast fashion working conditions) which causes some to question whether the concept should even be studied in the field of Criminology. This results in an absence of unified body of literature, neglecting the topic of corporate crime which is merely reproduced within the media that also fails to identify the criminal conduct of corporations.

The complexity of corporate crimes and corporate operations also obscures our ability to recognise if a crime has been perpetrated. Corporations are multi-national organizations with structures that extend over multiple departments, individuals, and countries. Corporate crime results from multitude of decisions taken by various decision-makers, some of which may span across years, as opposed to traditional criminality based on individualism of space, time and perpetrator, (hence, many traditional theories also lack appropriateness in this area). There is also a possibility that some of the decisions undertaken were, indeed, mistakes combined with wrongful conduct that may lack mens rea as well as intentional criminal conduct. As such, our ability to discern where and if a criminal conduct has occurred is diminished.

Corporate Media

The absent concern for corporate crime is perpetuated by media which becomes problematic as media is the main source of data on corporate crime. It is well established in media studies research that media is used to construct realities as well as to shape public opinions. Mass media is owned by large corporations and is dependent upon advertising by other large corporations and as such, it is difficult for them to critically report on crimes perpetrated by corporations. Furthermore, concerns about legal actions and inequality of access to legal expertise may make media organisations strike a more rather than less cautious tone and content when addressing the conduct of powerful corporations.

This is not to say that journalistic standards are not adhered to, merely to suggest that the way in which journalists decide to frame corporate crimes is very different to the framing of street crimes. It is common for media to identify corporate crimes as accidents, scandals, and disasters, lacking the criminal and malicious discourse attached to interpersonal crimes. This also normalises corporate criminality in the public consciousness, labelling it an expected outcome of the way in which capitalist systems work. Further, corporations have the ability to sue media outlets for slander/libel when media uses accusatory language towards them. As such, media outlets may avoid condemnation of corporate actions under the threat of lawsuits to avoid having to pay for damaged reputation. Public perceptions of the seriousness of corporate crime are very low compared to traditional crime, contrary to evidence from research. This is evident by the language media used in the Amazon case:

either high winds or a possible tornado collapsed the brick slab walls and roof of about 100 yards of the massive complex

Six Amazon.com workers were confirmed dead on Saturday after… tornadoes roared through a warehouse near St. Louis, ripping off its roof and causing…walls…to collapse on themselves.

Both statements suggest that the tornado was the cause of the collapse of the wall and the subsequent death of the employees. But the truth is that no one would have died had Amazon focussed on worker safety and protection during extreme weather, meaning that the negligent conduct of Amazon decision-makers significantly contributed to deaths of the workers. Indeed, an investigation by OSHA has been launched into the workplace deaths which will most likely uncover what media has already been reporting on – the lack of storm shelters in the warehouse. The media has also been reporting on a new development in the case, a wrongful death lawsuit being filed by the family of one victim in the case, offering a more balanced and neutral argument. Though based on my research of corporate crime media portrayals, the first few days of coverage are the most formative ones when it comes to opinion forming, so this is unlikely to alter public perceptions about the seriousness of this case.

Placing the Amazon case within the natural disaster reporting takes away corporate responsibility and whitewashes the corporate involvement in a crime. There is nothing accidental about the fatalities that have occurred in the Amazon warehouse, workers could have been ordered to stay at home, or at the very least, they could have been provided with appropriate storm shelters. But alas, it is difficult for Criminology, media, and the public alike to recognise that a crime has occurred and just like that, corporate crime turns into, well, NOT a crime. As such, more needs to be done to bring this argument to the foreground of Criminological and public discourses. 

About the author

Jana is currently working on her Ph.D. that examines media portrayals of corporate crime at The Open University with an ESRC scholarship. The key research focus throughout her Criminology-focussed studies has always been corporate crime and its marginal position in and out of academia, which she hopes to challenge with her future contributions.





This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the British Society of Criminology or the institution she works for.

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