Italian authorities use WeChat to track Chinese sea cucumber smugglers

Published on
March 11, 2019

The social media app WeChat (also known as Weixin) has proven vital in tracking and prosecuting a gang illegally catching sea cucumber and sea horses off the Italian coast for the Chinese market.

Authorities in the port town of Taranto arrested a group of Chinese nationals on suspicion of smuggling dried sea cucumbers and sea horses to Hong Kong and mainland China. Police were aable to charge the gang by examining a chain of messages on the Wechat platform, after finding name cards with Wechat contact details within the packaging used by the gang to ship their catch back to China, where sea cucumber and sea horse are seen as delicacies and fetch high prices.

Details of the case were revealed by Taranto media and by the Xinhua news agency, which has a bureau in Italy. 

Sea cucumber is farmed in large quantities by Chinese aquaculture firms but the wild species remains in demand, especially in the high-end dining sector in China. Similar demand for wild eel has seen a surge in smuggling from Spain to China. 

With increased overseas travel by Chinese citizens, China's Customs Administration regularly publicizes the seizure of foodstuffs and wild species including sea cucumber in luggage and postal packages. A case in the city of Hangzhou in November 2018 saw a kilogram of Italian sea cucumber seized by customs, which released an official statement explaining its seizure was due to there being “no protocol for import of this species from Italy and there is the risk of disease.”

Other Mediterranean countries have banned sea cucumber fishing. Croatia closed its fishery after divers destroyed the sea bottom along the coast of Makarska. Environmentalists and local authorities blamed the overfishing for creating anoxic conditions – the lack of oxygen on the sea floor – which caused the disappearance of fish and other marine organisms.

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