BRUSSELS - Young European eels are routinely smuggled to China, raised there for about half a year, then shipped to the Japanese market as demand for the fish spikes in the summertime, a senior Spanish police officer has said.
The details came to light after Spanish police arrested 10 people in April, including Spanish and Chinese nationals, on suspicion of smuggling a huge amount of juvenile European eels into China during the species’ fishing season between last autumn and this spring. The European Union banned exports of the fish in 2010.
At the time of the arrest, police said Japan is a major destination for illegal exports of European eel, which is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention.
Juan Luis Garcia, a senior Spanish investigation officer for environmental crimes, said that many smuggled juvenile eels are put in aquaculture pools in China around December before being farmed for about six months and then shipped to Japan, where eels are a prized summer delicacy.
On what is traditionally referred to as the Day of the Ox — which this summer fell on July 20 and Wednesday — people often eat the fish, usually grilled with sweet soy sauce.
The number of eels caught by Japanese fishers is on the decline, making them more expensive, but an old saying that consuming the fish on the traditional day helps the body withstand the summer heat still leads to high levels of consumption.
According to Europol, the European Union’s police agency, an estimated 100 tons of young eels were smuggled from Europe to China between last autumn and this spring, but it remains unclear how much of that total was then exported on to Japan.
The Fisheries Agency says that major supermarkets in Japan do not deal with European eels, but if imported as processed food, there is no way to tell which species they are.
China is the biggest exporter of the fish to Japan, with about 15,000 tons of eel products being shipped to their East Asian neighbor in 2017, according to trade data from the Finance Ministry.
Despite very poor catches of juvenile eels throughout the region this season, live eel imports from China in the first half of this year rose more than 50 percent from a year earlier to about 3,166 tons.
Imports of eel products, including processed fish, declined only slightly to 8,595 tons in the same period from 9,361 tons a year before.
Tokyo’s efforts to crack down on the smuggling of eels have been weak and the country has also been slow to establish a traceability system to track the illegal trade of the fish, like the one in place for bluefin tuna, experts say.
The Spanish police officer said cooperating on the investigation with Japan will be very important. If they are seen to cooperate, Chinese smugglers will likely start to regard shipping European eels to Japan as being too risky.