Four Chinese arrested for smuggling glass eels in Spain-Portugal bust on ‘the biggest wildlife crime in Europe’

Nearly one fourth of the total European eel natural stock is smuggled past authorities every year, an expert said - making it ‘the biggest wildlife crime action in Europe’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 2:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2018, 9:45pm

Four Chinese citizens were among ten people arrested after Spanish and Portuguese authorities brought down a criminal network that had been making lucrative profits by smuggling glass eels to Asia.

Spain’s Civil Guard said 460 kilograms (1,014 pounds) of glass eels were seized in southern Spain with a market value of over €400 million (US$490 million).

More than 100 tonnes of juvenile eels are smuggled past wildlife traffic controls every year in Europe, according to Andrew Kerr, chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, a regional platform of scientists and industry stakeholders.

“That’s nearly one fourth of the total European eel natural stock,” Kerr said. “It’s the biggest wildlife crime action in Europe, and it’s hidden from everyone.”

The joint operation - which was concluded in March but only revealed on Friday - also saw three Spaniards and three Moroccans arrested in Spain in an operation coordinated by the European Union’s police body.

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 then culled so that their meat can be used in expensive local cuisine.

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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, Mainland China, South Korea and other Asian countries.

Police also seized 364 suitcases possibly used to smuggle the eels, with potential profits of €37.5 million (US$4.7 million), Civil Guard Coronel Jesus Galvez said during a press conference in Madrid on Friday.

Because eels can’t be bred in captivity, the wriggling glass eels – or elvers – are usually fished and raised to maturity in aquaculture companies in Asia, where pollution, climate change and poaching has diminished stocks of the Japonica Anguilla species.

The trading of the European eel has been restricted since 2009 under the rules of the CITES convention for the international trade of endangered wildlife.

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The European Union has banned all exports outside the bloc and regulated internal sales, although an underground business has thrived in recent years.

Since the glass eel fishing season began at the end of the fall, Portugal has arrested 28 people and has seized one tonne of glass eels in 18 raids. 

Hugo Alexandre Matos, director of the Portuguese authority of food security, ASAE, said several investigations remain open.

The operations come with environmental crimes on the rise globally and in Europe, said Europol’s chief for organised crime, Jari Liukku, who compared the benefits from illicit wildlife trade to those of drug, arms or human trafficking.

“Punishments are low and the conviction rate for environmental crimes is still low,” he said.