SEPRONA investigations have resulted in heavy penalties for eel traffickers. Image Guardia Civil/SEPRONA

The Spanish National Court has handed down five smugglers to a total of six years in prison and fines totalling €150 million for trafficking in European eels.

The group have been given severe penalties for breaches CITES and EU legislation by trying to smuggle the endangered European eel between 2011 and 2012.

The network attempted to remove 724kg of live eels, with a value put at €580,000, from Spain to Asia but were stopped in the first major operation carried out by SEPRONA, the nature protection service of Spain’s Civil Guard.

The network falsely documented the eels for transit to Asia as other species not subject to regulations, including American eel, California red worm, and flathead grey mullet.

An officer carrying out a search for trafficked eels. Image Guardia Civil/SEPRONA

The export and import of European eel out of and into the European Union has been suspended since 2010. However, the scale of the illegal trade remains vast. According to Europol, 300 to 350 million European eels are illegal trafficked every year from Europe to Asia, accounting for almost one quarter of the total number of glass eels (juvenile eels) entering European waters every year.

The accused have been found guilty of trading in endangered eels without national authorisation within the CITES Convention and have been sentenced to a total of six years in prison and fined €1.50 million. Two individuals are facing further charges against another case of smuggling European eel in 2017.

‘Spain is becoming a leader within Europol through its commitment to stopping these crimes. These are major fines and imprisonment, which illustrate that wildlife crime is important and will be severely punished within Spain and the EU,’ said Andrew Kerr, Chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group.

‘Illegal trafficking still affects 25% of the total stock of European Eel. To complete the full recovery of the precious species, it is vital that we stop all smuggling because it undermines every effort used to establish adequate protection from other human impacts across Europe.’

In 2018, eight tonnes of trafficked eels were intercepted across Europe by authorities and 100 people were detained for the contraband.

Since 2011, SEPRONA alone has carried out five major interventions in the trade, which has resulted in eight tonnes of seized smuggled eels.