27 arrested as investigators smash network trafficking in young eels

27 arrested as investigators smash network trafficking in young eels
Credit: Belga

An international network trafficking in elvers, eel fry sold at a premium on the black market in Asia,  has been dismantled, investigators announced on Thursday.

The operation, conducted in France, Spain, Belgium and Poland, resulted in the arrest on Wednesday of 27 traffickers, the investigators said.

The European bust led to the arrest of four masterminds in France, where a clandestine fish tank was discovered with smuggled elvers and equipment to store and re-oxygenate these endangered animals.

Investigators say the trafficking was “the work of an organised gang (using) the Franco-Spanish border in an attempt to conceal its criminal activities with Asia.”

In total, nearly four tonnes of young glass eels were fraudulently exported between 2021 and 2023, for an estimated profit of €1.18 million, according to the European investigation team.

The investigations, launched in 2021, found the involvement of fishmongers, trade officials and fishermen, who were taking this regulated species outside of quotas.

The investigators also uncovered illegal export channels through European airports, mainly via Asian intermediaries based in the Parisian region.

In Spain, the Guardia Civil arrested around 20 people, while investigations were also carried out at facilities in Belgium and at a restocking plant in Poland suspected of being a ‘front company’ for smuggled exports to Asia.

Some €200.000 in cash were seized, as well as €900,000 in other goods, including smuggled glass eels and vehicles.

Glass eels are threatened with extinction and exporting them from the EU has been banned since 2010. However, despite the ban, the annual value of the illegal trade in glass eels is estimated at €3.0 billion.

The eels trade for €700 to €900 a kilogramme in France, where fishing is highly regulated, and up to €5,000 in Asia.

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