KOCHI – Japan is struggling to crack down on the poaching of glass eels, which has been on the rise due to surging prices reflecting unprecedentedly poor catches.
In Kochi Prefecture, a major glass eel fishing area, police discovered a facility used by poachers and arrested 11 men late last year. An expert said the mass arrest was “just the tip of the iceberg” for the problem.
In the pre-dawn drama on Dec. 8, 25 local police officers stormed into a greenhouse in the city of Aki, where men in wetsuits were taking a break.
In the greenhouse were tubs containing massive amounts of swimming glass eels that were poached at the mouth of the Aki River.
The authorities arrested 10 men age between 19 and 36 at the scene for allegedly poaching and keeping 2.9 kilograms of glass eels at the greenhouse.
The men, who are mainly farmers or jobless, admitted to the charges. A man who is the owner of the greenhouse and is believed to have led the poaching initially evaded police but was arrested at a later date.
A local fisher says that the arrested men are members of a major poaching ring active in the eastern part of the prefecture. Glass eels are known as “white diamonds” because of their high prices.
The Kochi Prefectural Government and other local authorities are investigating their possible links with a crime syndicate, as well as a distribution channel for poached glass eels.
According to the Fisheries Agency, the number of glass eel poaching cases against which authorities took action came to 278 in the five years through fiscal 2016.
Prices of glass eels were below ¥1 million per kilogram in the 2000s, but have topped ¥2 million in recent years.
The number of poaching cases remains high and offenders face fines of up to only ¥100,000. The agency plans to raise the penalties to up to ¥30 million in 2023 as part of its efforts to clamp down on poaching.
“Besides poaching, many opaque practices exist in the eel market, such as sales through distribution routes other than official channels and underreporting of catches,” said Kenzo Kaifu, an associate professor at Chuo University.
“Eel stock management would be difficult” unless current rules are reviewed promptly, he added.