Spanish and Portuguese authorities on Friday said that they have taken down a criminal network that made large profits by smuggling glass eels to Asia.
Authorities across the continent have been trying to tackle the smugglers, who take European glass eels to Asian countries, where they are raised into adults and their meat commands high prices for local delicacies.
Trade in the European eel has been restricted since 2009 under the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The EU has banned all exports outside the union and regulated internal sales, although an underground black market in eels has thrived in recent years.
In the latest operation, four Chinese citizens, three Spaniards and three Moroccans were arrested in Spain in an operation coordinated by Europol.
The Spanish Civil Guard said that 460kg of glass eels were seized in southern Spain, adding that their market value, once the eels have grown into adults, is estimated at more than 400 million euros (US$492 million).
One kilogram of baby eels could yield 1.3 tonnes of adult eels, investigators said.
More than 100 tonnes of juvenile eels evade wildlife traffic controls every year in Europe, Sustainable Eel Group chairman Andrew Kerr said.
“That’s nearly one-fourth of the total European eel natural stock,” Kerr said on Friday. “It’s the biggest wildlife crime action in Europe and it’s hidden from everyone.”
Friday’s disclosure showed how the ring exported the baby eels bought in Spain through Portugal and Morocco, and how the eels were concealed in suitcases or in cargo containers and sent to Hong Kong, China, South Korea and other Asian markets.
Police also seized 364 suitcases possibly used to smuggle the eels, Spanish Civil Guard Colonel Jesus Galvez told reporters in Madrid.
Because eels cannot be bred in captivity, the wriggling glass eels —or elvers — are usually fished and raised to maturity at aquaculture farms in Asia, where pollution, climate change and poaching has diminished stocks of the Japonica Anguilla species.
Since the glass eel fishing season began at the end of the fall, Portugal has arrested 28 people and seized 1 tonne of glass eels during 18 raids.
Meanwhile, Spain has since November arrested or identified as suspects 89 people, confiscating more than 2.3 tonnes of baby eels.
The seized eels have been reintroduced to the wild, Galvez said.
Europol European Serious and Organized Crime Centre Head Jari Liukku compared the benefits from illicit wildlife trading to those of drug, arms or human trafficking.
“Punishments are low and the conviction rate for environmental crimes is still low,” he said.
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