Two hundred tons of Norway lobsters sleep the sleep of the righteous in freezing warehouses of A Coruña with no possibility of reaching any dish in these parties, and possibly never. They are crayfish without papers and without sanitary guarantees, main witnesses of a case of the Civil Guard, Operation Pinza Roja, which has ended up becoming the biggest blow in Spain against its illegal trade. After a first phase that broke out in July and a second in November that revealed to researchers that they were facing a "true macro operation", the number of seafood seized multiplied by four the total amount (46 tons) that was allowed to be captured throughout the Bay of Biscay during 2016, the last extraction year before the European Commission decreed a closure, in principle until 2020, for the biological recovery of the species.
These days the Operation Red Clamp, which began with a string of administrative infractions by wholesalers and retailers in the sector, has ended up coming to court with the imputation of a distributor for an alleged crime against public health. According to the Civil Guard, the analyzes of five samples of the seafood found in its warehouse, ready to be shipped, have given values of preservative much higher than those allowed by law. They are sulphites, or sulfur derivatives, normally used by the food industry, and in particular for the freezing of shellfish, which act as antioxidants and serve to bleach those parts that, like the heads of scampi and prawns, tend to blacken with the passage weather.
"In February, the investigation will be one year old, when we heard that in the area of the Port of A Coruña, in aisles and loading areas but always outside the auction room of the Lonja, fresh langoustine from the Bay of Biscay was being sold, "says Antonio Fuentes, second in charge of the Maritime Service of the Civil Guard in A Coruña." It was banned but it was marketed, "the lieutenant explains," and what started as a tiny performance has become in a snowball that keeps growing and we do not know where it will take us. "" It is likely to roll again, "he warns." As soon as we had the first confirmed data, we decided to make a small operation, and on July 4 we seized 333 kilos of fresh Norway lobster"Remember, sellers and buyers were organized through WhatsApp groups Openly, without codes or keywords, everyone was notified of the arrival of fresh Norway lobster and clandestine bids were summoned from the succulent crustacean.
But that track took the officers of the Maritime Service and the veterinary inspectors of the Xunta to a "well-known shellfish freezing company on the outskirts of the city" where 45 tonnes of Norway lobster were found "without identifying and without being able to do any kind of follow-up". That amount already exceeded any other clandestine consignment ever seized in Spain. Could come "from the Cantabrian or Northern Europe," says Fuentes, but except for a series of "small items" that the Xunta authorized to market because "the owner could prove the origin", the rest of the genre remains undocumented and immobilized half a year later .
"The fundamental word of this operation is the trazabilidad", summarizes the civil guard that was to the control of the Red Pinza. "You do not know where you went fishing or what ship did it and it's going to be difficult for this information to appear." "For the large amount, we imagine that from northern Europe, from countries like Ireland or Iceland," he concludes, "unlike those first kilos of fresh Norway lobster" seized in the port area, which probably came "from the north of A Coruña and Lugo. "
"Pulling the thread", says the operative spokesman, "in the following months" the agents detected new movements among shellfish traders. "We suspected that other companies in the area could also be distributing Norway lobster" outside the legal channels, a cheaper commodity for them that would bring them higher profits when they reach the market. And on November 13, always "with the support of the teams of the Xunta", they registered another ship where they found "more than two tons ready for sale" in addition to 165 bags of antioxidant for seafood. "This was a much larger amount than was needed, so this time we thought that in addition to the administrative offense for the sale of a product without traceability or health guarantees we were facing a criminal offense," explains Fuentes. "The five samples analyzed" by the Public Health Laboratory of Galicia "have tested positive in sulfite in a much higher amount than authorized" and the case has been referred to the Court of Instruction No. 3 of the city.
Sulfites disguise crustaceans, rejuvenate them. If the seafood is more attractive, it can be sold more expensive, so this practice, explains the Civil Guard, does not stop being a "scam" to the consumer besides involving health disorders in sensitive people, such as headaches or respiratory failure in the case of asthmatics. Sulfites are preservatives and color fixers that are used in an almost infinite variety of foods for a long time and that ended up replacing boric acid when it was considered carcinogenic. "In the right amount they are allowed because they do not entail danger", but "they can cause serious problems in allergic people", warns the lieutenant. The usual method of applying sulphites in crustaceans, sprinkling or immersion, makes the dose very imprecise and encourages excesses.
Of those two tons, a part was about to leave the warehouse towards a large shopping center in A Coruña. There "they bought both private and large areas throughout Spain," says Fuentes. The Civil Guard is now studying the intervened documentation, of which "it is not excluded that new imputations will come out". And at the moment it is also an unknown if among the private owners there are restaurants.
The shellfish of the distributor that kept the sulphite sacks came from another larger ship in which they were discovered in November 153.5 tons, also immobilized because they can not prove their origin or the path that followed the world until entering the cold room. Reviewing such amount of Norway lobsters, with an estimated value of 4.5 million euros in the market, "was the hardest part of the job". The guards of the Maritime Service entered "by turns, two by two" in facilities at 22 degrees below zero, "with a thermal sensation of -40". It took three whole days to see everything there.
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The last week of the year the Civil Guard of Pontevedra dismantled an organized group of at least seven people who were dedicated to extract clam in shellfish banks of Vigo and Pontevedra. They used boats with false registration and in 2017 they had already been denounced 132 times for poaching. According to the researchers, there were days in which up to 306 kilos of bivalve were seized, when the average allowed for authorized shellfish gatherers is 8.75 kilos per day.
"Although it is not our main task, the Maritime Service carries out these operations because it can not look the other way" when it discovers a case, says the department's lieutenant in A Coruña, which covers the coast of the whole province, from the north from the Ría de Arousa to Cabo Ortegal. Apart from them, the fight against poaching falls mainly on the Coast Guard of the Xunta and the fishermen of the guilds. In 2018, only in A Coruña and only by the Civil Guard, 35 "pure and hard" poachers and 28 fishermen with boats were reported. The first ones were seized more than 335 kilos of clam, cockle, nécora, octopus, razor and scallop worth 4,830 kilos. To the latter, 16,593 kilos of fish such as hake, horse mackerel or sardine, as well as nécoras, crayfish or cockles, with a market price of 135,696 euros.