Law enforcement casts net over 256 eel smugglers

A joint operation coordinated by Europol, involving law enforcement authorities across the globe, has dealt yet another major blow to organised crime groups engaged in international glass eel trafficking. This years’ edition of Operation LAKE ran from October 2022 to June 2023 and led to the arrest of 256 persons responsible for the trafficking of 25 tonnes of live glass eels worth around EUR 13 million. 8 tonnes of these baby eels were already on their way out of the EU towards Asia, where they were due to be raised in fish farms and sold worldwide upon reaching adulthood.

With an increase of over 50 percent in arrests and seizures, Operation LAKE’s latest season marked a new record as the most successful yet. Among the 256 arrested were nationals of China, Malaysia, France, Spain and Portugal, including two high-value targets and fifty of their closest associates. These successes substantially disrupt the organised criminal networks involved in this multi-billion euro activity. In addition, authorities seized criminal assets worth over EUR one million and bank accounts containing over EUR two million.

Law enforcement effort as last resort for eels

Operation LAKE targets the trafficking of the protected European glass eel, one of the most devastating crimes against wildlife worldwide. While the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) population has decreased by 90 % in recent years, persistent law enforcement activities against eel trafficking could be partly responsible for preventing the species from being wiped out entirely.

The trafficking of glass eels is one of the most substantial and lucrative illegal trades of protected species across the globe, with illegal profits estimated to be up to EUR 3 billion in peak years. Successful law enforcement efforts in combating this threat to European wildlife have made a big contribution to the significant decrease in illegal activity. Estimates show that incidents involving the trafficking of eels have fallen by 50 % since 2016, the year after Operation LAKE was launched. Since then, more than 750 individuals have been arrested and 26 tonnes of glass eels have been prevented from being smuggled and could be returned to their natural habitats.

Sophisticated environmental crime

Several criminal networks are responsible for trafficking these fish from Europe to Asia. Within these criminal organisations, EU nationals are mainly responsible for illegally fishing the young eels in European waters while nationals from the destination countries in Asia arrange further logistics and transportation. In certain cases, glass eels are bought from poachers, in others, legally fished glass eels are deviated to illegal markets. Typically, local fishers fish the eels in rivers, using illegal and forbidden methods that often cause extreme damage to the river fauna. There is a legal market for glass eels within the EU and fish can be moved through Europe for farming or restocking. Criminals therefore rely on and misuse legally operating EU companies, under their control.

After fishing, the eels are transported and stored in warehouses, as well as houses and apartments across Europe. Generally, Asian members of the criminal network tend to be responsible for preparing the live fish for transport in passengers’ suitcases or cargo shipments. The modus operandi ranges from camouflaged packages labelled as commodities using commercial flights, eels hidden in passengers’ luggage, or transported in vehicles. These fragile fish have to survive the trip to Asia in sealed boxes or plastic bags equipped to provide a certain water temperature and oxygen supply.

Once the eels arrive in Asia, they are grown in fish farms and then distributed to different markets around the globe. The trade in glass eels, regarded as a delicacy in many Asian countries, is one of the most impactful forms of wildlife trafficking worldwide. It is suspected that around 100 tonnes of glass eels may be smuggled annually from European Union Member States, with prices reaching staggering numbers of up to several thousand euros per kilo. 

Europol’s role

Europol coordinated the operational activities, hosted a virtual command post, facilitated the information exchange and provided analytical and forensic support to national law enforcement authorities across continents. During the action days, Europol deployed experts to the hot spots to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases in real time and provide leads to investigators in the field.

Operation LAKE targets the trafficking of endangered species in the European Union and aims to dismantle violent organised crime groups involved in associated illegal activities, such as environmental crime, smuggling, money laundering, tax evasion and document counterfeiting. 

Participating countries and agencies: 

Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Colombia, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco, North Macedonia, Serbia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, DG SANTE (Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety), EFCA (European Fisheries Control Agency), Eurojust, OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office) and INTERPOL.