One of the more recent busts took place in Lisbon airport last Thursday afternoon, when a foreign man was found to be carrying 15 kilos of live elvers, worth around €100,000, concealed in his suitcase.
According to reports, from the outside the suitcases being carried by the 32-year-old suspect looked like any others in Lisbon airport that day.
However, upon closer inspection, PSP police found the ingeniously modified luggage was hiding 15 kilos of live baby eels, being lined with thermal films and containing water to keep them alive.
It is believed the most likely market for the elvers was the Asian market, where it is a much appreciated and highly valued delicacy; it is said some restaurants in Japan can pay up to €20,000 for one kilo of the fish.
In the last two months GNR police have seized over €4 million worth of elvers following investigations in the Setúbal region into illegal gathering and trafficking networks.
Most of the elvers are smuggled to the Far East, to countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, where one kilo fetches an average of €10,000.
The GNR’s latest coup was announced last Friday with the seizure of 200 kilos of baby eels, valued at around two million euros, and the arrest of nine men.
The suspects are of Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese nationality, “with highly-organised and diverse cells scattered throughout Europe”, says the GNR, adding the cells use ‘couriers’ to transport live baby eels to the Far East.
In addition to 200 kilograms of baby eels, during the operation the GNR seized 110,000 in banknotes, two cars with special tanks for the transport of live elvers; 70 suitcases equipped for international transport, and tanks for live specimens.
In January, Setúbal GNR officers seized 96kg of elvers, valued at 960 thousand euros, and arrested nine men. In February they seized 114kg, valued at €1.4 million, and arrested five suspects.
Elvers are classified as an endangered species in Portugal and live specimens are returned to the rivers. The only place in Portugal where the capture of baby eels is allowed is in the Minho River.
The detainees could face charges of damage against nature, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison; qualified contraband (up to three years), money laundering (up to 12 years in prison) and criminal association (up to five years).