EU enforcers clamp down on sushi-driven glass eel smuggling

European law enforcers have been able to seize almost three and a half tonnes of baby eels from smugglers and return them to the wild.

Europol’s Operation Lake took place during the 2017-2018 fishing season and had a sizeable impact on the criminal organization behind the illicit trade – with 53 suspected smugglers arrested by enforcement agencies from France, Portugal, Spain, and the UK.

Wild baby eels – known as glass eels – have become a target of smugglers over the last few years because declining populations of the native European species Anguilla anguilla meant that it became illegal to export eels them from the EU, although some trade within the bloc is permitted.

Massive demand for the fish in Asian markets – where the young eels are used to seed the massive aquaculture farms serving the sushi trade – has meant that high prices can be charged for supplies – Europol estimates that the 3,394kg seized in Operation Lake was worth around €6.5m.

Europol says the main action carried out this season was Operation Elvers in April, when the Nature Protection Service unit of the Spanish Guardia Civil and Portuguese Food Safety and Economic Authority dismantled an organised crime group smuggling glass eels in suitcases on planes to Asia.

It’s a problem that also affects other parts of the world, including the US where there has been a parallel situation for American eels (Anguilla rostrata), with escalating prices stimulating widespread poaching and smuggling. Because of the threat of overfishing, glass eel harvesting is prohibited in the US in all but two states: Maine and South Carolina.

Last month,  Maine dealer William Sheldon was sentenced to six months in prison followed by three years’ supervised release after admitting to trafficking nearly $500,000 worth of illegal glass eels. He was also fined $10,000 and ordered to forfeit $33,200 in lieu of a truck used to carry out the criminal activity.

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