Europol has coordinated an operation that resulted in the breakup of an international criminal network suspected of illegally smuggling tonnes of eels out of the EU to China, where the animals are considered a delicacy with aphrodisiac qualities.
Police in Spain and Greece carried out a series of raids that resulted in the arrests of 17 people suspected of being part of a gang that made at least €5 million every year shipping endangered eel breeds out of Europe.
The operation also involved officers from France, Italy, Portugal and the UK.
In the current season alone, law enforcement agencies estimate the gang shipped 10 tonnes of eels to China, raking in an estimated €10 million.
During the raids, police seized two tonnes of eels worth €2 million, a number of electronic storage devices, €2 million worth of cash and gold and a number of luxury cars.
The suspects held were charged with a range of offences, including smuggling, money laundering, crimes against wildlife and forgery.
Among those held in Spain were two Chinese nationals, who arranged with contacts in their home country for money to be sent via Hong Kong in a bid to avoid detection.
The probe began after Spanish investigators discovered a firm that had been purchasing eels from four different countries in a suspicious manner. After the fish had been introduced to the legal market, the company would move them to Greece using false documentation, from where they were illegally exported to China.
EU Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella commented: “Operation Lake shows what great results can be achieved against wildlife trafficking when committed field investigators from different EU member states work together.
“The EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking provides a solid foundation for cooperation. On the specific case, eels are an endangered species in Europe.
“Illegal fishing and trade represent a direct threat to their survival. I congratulate those who have sent the strong message that not only do we care about protecting biodiversity – we have the capacity to act.”
News of the operation comes weeks after a man was stopped at London Heathrow Airport attempting to smuggle 600,000 endangered live eels worth an estimated £1.2 million to Hong Kong.
Officers from the UK’s Border Force found the European glass eels hidden beneath a load of chilled fish that was due to be exported to the former British colony.
European glass eels have been declared an endangered species. Their numbers have plummeted 90% since the 1970s. While they can be legally fished to strict quotas, exported and eaten within the EU, export outside of the union is banned.
European eel is listed on Annex II of CITES, the EU Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.