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Spain, Portugal bust gang smuggling eels worth $625 million to Asia

Spain, Portugal bust gang smuggling eels worth $625 million to Asia

MADRID—A joint investigation by Spanish and Portuguese authorities has brought down a criminal network that has been making lucrative profits by smuggling glass eels to Asia.

In the latest operation against the traffickers that was concluded in March but only revealed Friday, four Chinese citizens, three Spaniards and three Moroccans were arrested in Spain in an operation co-ordinated by the European Union’s police body.

Spain’s Civil Guard said 460 kilograms of glass eels were seized in southern Spain with a market value of over 400 million euros ($625 million Canadian).

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 and their meat is sold expensively for the local cuisine.

More than 100 tons of juvenile eels evade 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 Friday. “It’s the biggest wildlife crime action in Europe, and it’s hidden from everyone.”

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 euros (58.8 million Canadian), Civil Guard Coronel Jesus Galvez said during a press conference in Madrid.

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