Authorities from six European countries have dismantled an alleged criminal organization that sold fish unfit for consumption.

Fish was stored in, and transported to, several EU countries in improper and unsanitary conditions, and then sold to Romanian companies.

The investigation, coordinated by Eurojust, involved illegal fishing in contaminated waters, tax evasion and money laundering.

In a joint action day, almost 250 searches were performed, 13 people were arrested, 11 boats and 30 tons of contaminated fish were seized and taken from the Romanian market. The Romanian Sanitary, Veterinary and Food Safety Authority destroyed all the seized fish estimated to be worth $140,000.

Photo courtesy of Guardia Civil

A total of 850 police officers were deployed during the operation from national law enforcement authorities, including the Italian Guardia di Finanza, the Spanish Policía Nacional, and the French Gendarmerie Nationale’s Office central de lutte contre les atteintes à l’environnement et à la santé publique.

Members of the alleged organized crime group were former fishermen. Law enforcement agencies say they poached and purchased fish from territorial waters in Italy, Spain and France, where fishing is prohibited as fish in those areas are unfit for consumption.

Fish was sold to Romanian companies set up as “ghost” fish marketing companies. Through those firms, the group is reported to have obtained fishing permits and VAT codes for the trades, but not the mandatory sanitary authorizations for trade of products of animal origin.

Officials say the suspects used fake invoices and other falsified documents to resell fish in Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Portugal and Romania.

The Guardia Civil in Spain seized about 9,000 kilograms of catfish and carp from the Ebro river on the Iberian Peninsula and reservoirs in Zaragoza and Huesca. Authorities estimated the gang made a profit of €100,000 ($111,000) per year.

The operation resulted in 23 people of Romanian nationality being detained and investigated. Ten vans used to transport fish from Spain to eastern European countries, several boats, oars, rods, large nets, weighing scales and other tools related to fishing were also seized.

In 2018, authorities in Constanța, Romania, started a criminal investigation into the gang. That was followed by parallel investigations in Lleida, Spain; Venice, Italy; and Tarascon, France.

Eurojust officials met with Europol officials to decide on investigative and prosecutorial strategies and solve judicial and operational issues. Europol assisted the investigators with cross-matching of information and evidence, demonstrating links to France and Italy.

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