Major glass eel trafficking ring taken down by EU op

Authorities in Europe have disrupted the trade in glass eels from a threatened species, making more than 50 arrests in its latest crackdown on the criminal networks behind it.

The latest instalment of Operation Lake involved law enforcement from 24 countries and intercepted more than a million immature glass eels weighing 387kg, as well as 25kg of adult eels, worth an estimated €1.24m ($1.51m).

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 limited trade within the bloc is permitted.

Massive demand for the fish in Asian markets – where glass eels are used to seed the massive aquaculture farms serving the sushi trade – has meant that high prices can be charged for supplies, and criminals have moved in to exploit the opportunity. The species has seen its population decrease by 90 % in recent years.

Operation Lake V was carried out between November 2020 and June 2021, and involved more than 58,000 inspections across Europe which also resulted in the seizure of cars, boats and other assets.

100kg of eels was discovered in a single raid at Barajas-Madrid airport in Spain, along with €70,000 n cash, while 60kg was found in bunker-like structures in Portugal, in which eels were being stored before being shipped to Asia.

Europol. Which coordinated the operation, said that the criminals behind the illicit activity had changed their modus operandi as the COVID-19 crisis hit, swapping from smuggling smaller quantities in suitcases to shipping them concealed in cargo.

"The main criminal networks involved in this trafficking are primarily active in France, Spain, Portugal and the UK, the four European countries producing glass eels," said the agency in a statement.  

"Nationals from these countries manage the illegal fishing while nationals from the destination countries in Asia arrange the logistics and transportation."

The trafficking of glass eels is one of the biggest, most lucrative illegal trades of protected spaces worldwide, with illegal profits estimated to be up to €3billion in recent years, according to Europol.

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