THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AFP) — Police across Europe have seized nearly 6 tons of live baby eels destined for Asia in a huge operation targeting smugglers of the critically endangered creatures, the EU’s police agency said Wednesday.
More than 150 suspected smugglers were also arrested during the coordinated, months-long sting that involved police in 10 European countries including France and Spain, Europol said in a statement.
Billions of euros worth of so-called glass eels are trafficked each year from Europe, ending up on tables in China and Japan in what campaigners say is “the largest wildlife crime on Earth”.
“European law enforcement was able to seize 5,789 kilos (12,763 lbs) of smuggled glass eels with an estimated value of 2,000 euros ($2,200) per kilo,” the European police agency said.
“In total, 154 suspected smugglers were arrested and all seized eels were reintroduced into their natural habitat, which is crucial for the survival of the species.”
Smugglers often put the tiny fish in plastic bags and hide them in luggage.
Four separate organized crime groups were involved in the trade in Spain alone, with one of those organizations bringing glass eels from France to Spain and then sending them by taxi to Portugal, where they would be exported by air.
Stocks of European eel (Anguilla anguilla) have plummeted 90% in three decades as development has encroached on the wetlands and dammed the rivers it needs to grow and feed in.
Experts fear criminal gangs who are smuggling the lucrative fish are pushing it towards extinction.
European eels have been protected since 2009 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
At the time, CITES estimated that about half of the eels caught in Europe are exported to China, Japan and South Korea to be grown in fish farms.
© Agence France-Presse