Tropical fish used in drug smuggling operation


Thousands of aquarium fish have been killed as unwitting pawns in a drug smuggling operation that was foiled.

Olaf Urlik and Norbert Jarzabek, both originally from Poland, have been jailed for 11 years each after they were found guilty of trying to smuggle 17 kg of cocaine, worth an estimated £1.6m at wholesale, from Colombia into the UK.

The cocaine was dissolved in bags of fluid and stored within larger bags of a live tropical fish consignment. More than 16,000 fish perished in the attempt, with the survivors now recuperating at the ZSL London Zoo.

In a trial run carried out in April last year, the two men left a similar number of tropical fish to die after they collected a previous consignment at Heathrow and abandoned the fish to die in a lock up garage in Islington, London.

Confident that they would succeed after this rehearsal, the two men plotted for the cocaine to be hidden in a similar shipment of 25 boxes of live tropical fish arriving in July.  Unbeknown to them, officials from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) were aware of their plot and, together with the UK Border Agency, scanned the shipment, where they found cocaine in 10 of the boxes.

After leaving the shipment at the airport for two days, the two men collected the fish and drove to a flat in Nottingham, where police arrested them 90 minutes after their arrival.

The long period of neglect had caused many of the fish to perish from a lack of oxygen, and only 41 were still alive at that point. SOCA contacted experts at ZSL London Zoo to look after the survivors, although seven more fish died subsequently.

The 34 survivors, including catfish, arowana, tetras and stingrays, will remain at the zoo.

According to Gerry Smyth from SOCA: "These two were exceptionally callous. They used living creatures as a test run and then effectively as packaging for their drugs, seeing only the profits they would make. SOCA is grateful to the expert teams at ZSL London Zoo who helped us out in this very unusual case."

"Despite the awful way that they came about being here, we are pleased to say that the fish are now thriving at ZSL London Zoo’s Aquarium.  When we first got the fish, most of them were drastically underweight, and they’d been living in cold, dirty water for days," added Rachel Jones from the ZSL London Zoo.

Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.