Europol and the Spanish Guardia Civil, in collaboration with Portuguese authorities, seized 350 kilograms of elvers that were about to be smuggled out of Spain during “Operation Elvers,” the three agencies announced on 6 April.
Ten suspects were arrested – Spanish, Chinese, and Moroccan nationals – in connection with smuggling the eels. Authorities estimate the group has managed to smuggle a value of EUR 37 million (USD 45.5 million) worth of eels over the course of their operation.
The European eel is subject to multiple EU regulations, including a blanket ban on all imports and exports and a global restriction on trade. In 2009, the species was listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora. Once it became clear that those measures weren’t enough, a ‘zero quota’ ban on all shipments to third countries was put into place.
A video released by the Spanish Guardia Civil shows authorities busting down doors in a raid on the elver smuggling facilities. Rows of tanks filled with make-shift aquaculture equipment, EUR 40,000 (USD 49,000) in cash, and stacks of travel bags used to smuggle the elvers out of the country were all found inside. According to Europol, a total of 364 travel bags were being prepared to be sent to China, and could have been able to carry more than five tons of eels.
The video also shows the 350 kilograms of live elvers, being released back into their natural habitat.
Earlier in March, officers also discovered how the groups were managing to smuggle large amounts of elvers from Madrid, Spain to Porto, Portugal; and from Algeciras, Spain to Morocco, said Europol. After discovering their method, Spanish authorities managed to stop several deliveries at Portuguese airports and stop a van carrying 129 kilograms of eels, worth an estimated EUR 967,000 (USD 1.1 million).
While the bust represents a sizeable amount of elvers and funds, some NGOs assert that much more needs to be done. The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), which advocates for protecting the European Eel, said that the amount of smuggling is going to impact the recovery of the European Eel.
“The scale of these illegal exports is challenging the protection policies within the EU. If we cannot control this, it will likely frustrate the recovery of the eel across Europe,” said Willem Dekker, who helped create the 2007 Eel Regulation.
Europol said it estimates that 100 metric tons of eels have likely been smuggled from the EU to China, which could represent north of EUR 750 million (USD 921 million) in sales.
SEG’s chairman Andrew Kerr said the moment is a bit bittersweet.
“We have been waiting for this moment for some time. Whilst welcoming and congratulating the local police efforts, we emphasize that this shocking situation indicates a gross failure of control by Member States and the European Commission,” he said. “When are we going to see the determination to stop trafficking, in all countries?”