Seafood salesman convicted of smuggling USD 68 million of eels through Britain

A seafood salesman has been convicted of smuggling an estimated 5.3 million critically endangered baby eels from Spain to East Asia via the United Kingdom over a two-year period, the U.K. National Crime Agency (NCA) has confirmed.

Sixty-seven-year-old Gilbert Khoo was found guilty at Southwark Crown Court on Friday, 7 February, of six offenses relating to the illegal importation and movement of the rare elvers.

Specialist Border Force officers found the European glass eels (Anguilla anguilla) concealed under a load of chilled fish at London's Heathrow Airport. They were due to be exported to Hong Kong on 15 February, 2017.

It was the first such seizure ever recorded in the United Kingdom.

NCA said the live consignment, weighing around 200 kilograms with an estimated value of at least GBP 5.7 million (USD 7.4 million, EUR 6.7 million) on the black market in East Asia, had been transported from Spain to the United Kingdom.

The eels were later returned to the wild.

Khoo was arrested on 23 February, 2017, when he disembarked a flight from Singapore at Heathrow Airport.

When interviewed by NCA officers, Khoo told them that he was a middleman for buying and selling seafood. However, while searching his home, paperwork was found which showed that between February 2015 and February 2017, Khoo was smuggling eels under his company Icelandic Commodities Exports Ltd.

Investigators found that Khoo would import elvers from E.U. states, hold them at a farm in Gloucestershire, England, then repackage and label them as “chilled fish” to be sent onwards to East Asia.

The investigators estimated that in two years, Khoo exported or had attempted to export 1,775 kilograms of eels with an estimated value of GBP 53 million (USD 68.5 million, EUR 62.6 million) on the black market.

Khoo is due to be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on 6 March, 2020.

“The entire operation run by Khoo to trade in these critically endangered animals was illegal from start to finish, and there is no doubt his sole motivation was money,” NCA Senior Investigating Officer Ian Truby said. “The profits to be made from illegally smuggling live eels to Hong Kong and the Far East are significant. But, the NCA are determined to protect vulnerable wildlife from criminals who wish to benefit financially.”

By weight, the small elvers can be extremely lucrative targets for smugglers. In 2018, a smuggling ring was busted in Spain that had smuggled an estimated EUR 37 million (USD 40.4 million) worth of the small eels, which are typically smuggled to Southeast Asia to be raised to adulthood in aquaculture operations.

“The Khoo case shows how highly organized and how lucrative eel smuggling is,” Andrew Kerr, the chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, said in a release from the organization. “This is not easy stuff – the technology is difficult to get right. But when you do, it is highly profitable. In this case organized criminals were looking to export a critically endangered fish and flout the desire of the public to see it saved.” 

Globally, the Sustainable Eel Group estimates the trade of illegally smuggled eels is a EUR 2.5 billion (USD 2.7 billion) industry.

“Along with our partners, like Border Force and the Fish Health Inspectorate, we are determined to do all we can to stop the global black market trade of endangered species,” Truby said.  

Photo courtesy of the U.K. National Crime Agency


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