The operation was into companies and individuals linked to a fleet of illegal fishing vessels in the Antarctic.
Operators are accused of environmental crimes, money laundering, falsification of documents and organized crime linked to the Kunlun, the Songhua and the Yongding vessels estimated to have generated around €10m per year in illicit proceeds.
Fishing methods prohibited
The three ships were spotted in January 2015 hauling gill nets laden with Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such methods are prohibited.
In March 2015 the UCOMA unit of the Environmental Protection Service (SEPRONA) of the Spanish Guardia Civil launched an operation to target the networks behind illegal fishing.
15 countries also started investigations concerning any related criminal activities of the three vessels and their operating network.
An Interpol Incident Support Team, including officers from the Guardia Civil went to Senegal last month to search the Kunlun which enabled officers to establish direct links between the vessel, the shell company registered as the owner and individuals in Spain.
Track illegal fish
They were then also able to track the 180 tonnes of illegal fish shipped to Vietnam via Singapore, and with all three countries, to coordinate collection of DNA samples and transfer of evidence to Spain.
“This year-long complex investigation required support and input from a wide range of agencies across a range of capabilities at both the national and international levels to help get to the roots of this large criminal network,” said brigadier general Vicente Pérez Pérez, head of SEPRONA.
The three Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) vessels had changed their names, national registration and other characteristics on multiple occasions to try and avoid detection.
The Songhua had been on the CCAMLR non-contracting party IUU vessel list following an investigation in 2008 and had used at least eight names under six flags.
The Yongding had operated under at least 11 different names and nine flags since 2001, and the Kunlun was spotted using at least 10 different names and five flags since 2006.
David Higgins, head of Interpol’s Environmental Security unit, said the operation led by Spain and involving multiple countries showed what can be achieved through international cooperation.
“It also sends a strong message that the global law enforcement community will take action against environmental criminals even, and especially, when these crimes are committed on the other side of the world.”