European authorities with help from agencies in Spain, Portugal and Greece have broken up a slippery gang network that are alleged to have smuggled over 10 tonnes of eel from the European Union over to China.
The 17 arrests came after raids in both Greece and Spain, where they found around 2 tonnes of European eel, a.k.a. Anguilla anguilla, (worth a million euro a tonne), along with "data storage devices, documents, luxury cars, €1m in cash and gold bars," according to a statement from Europol.
The Europol authority said that it believes as much as 10 tonnes of the young glass eels, at a profit of €10m, have been smuggled this season alone.
Before 2009, countries could freely trade eel caught in Europe with other markets, but over concerns about major declines in the eel population, restrictions were imposed seven years ago, limiting the trade to internal EU Member States only.
This means it’s illegal to sell European-caught eel to markets outside the EU, but a major illicit trafficking network has arisen in its place, with tonnes believed to be illegally sold, predominately to Asia, over the past few years.
France and Spain are the most active players in the fishery market, with the former having the largest, putting both at the heart of trying to stop this illegal trade.
Estimates from the East Asian eel industry, originally published by Nihon Yoshoku Shimbun, a Japanese aquaculture industry newspaper, put the black-market eel price at between $1,200 (£800) and $1,500 per kilo once it reaches Asia back in 2015.
Karmenu Vella, environment, maritime affairs and fisheries commissioner, said: "Operation Lake [which began two years ago] 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."