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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Fishy Business

Soichiro Kurose

Jan. 17, 2017

A serious shortage of eels, a delicacy in Japan, has led to cross-border smuggling so conservationists are urging governments to help regulate the industry.

Hong Kong has become a major supplier of eels to Japan, which is the world’s biggest market for them. Fishermen catch all kinds of fish there, except for eels because they say they don't live in nearby waters.

One eel exporter has a facility in a remote spot on the outskirts of the city. He keeps numerous tanks full of baby eels, and spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

"They only tell us how much fish they'll be supplying. We have no way of knowing where the eels come from," he says.

Export of the fish from Hong Kong to Japan has surged since 2007. That's when Taiwan, the largest supplier, introduced a ban on the export of eel fry.

Still., when the season begins in November, Taiwan's eel fishermen are busy. The day's trading price is about 900 dollars per bag, after jumping 7-fold over the past decade.

“Eels bring us big money," says one Taiwan fisherman.

By law, the eels have to be raised in Taiwan but the brokers won't say where the fry goes from here.

"We just sell them -- that’s all. We don’t know where the eels go after we ship them out," says one local broker.

A former industry representative says most eels caught in local waters go missing. In 2012, fishermen hauled in 3.2 tons of eel fry but only a quarter of that amount was raised on the island.

"We have no idea how many people are involved in eel trafficking, but we’re sure it’s a wide-spread practice," says Chou-In Kuo, former chair of the Taiwan Eel Farming Industry Development Foundation.

A man claiming to be involved in eel smuggling spoke to us on the condition that we agreed to keep his identity secret.

"Almost all baby eels are exported to Japan. Agents there phone us to negotiate the price. We sell the fish via Hong Kong," he says.

The man says one of the trafficking routes passes through the island of Kinmen, which is located just off the coast of mainland China. The man says smugglers travel by ferry, hiding their contraband in luggage and mingling with crowds of tourists.

We tried to find out how easy it is to bring baby eels in, using synthetic lookalikes. We got through without a hitch, and we didn’t see customs officers opening any other bags.

Smugglers say they can transport 20 kilograms of fish at a time, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The packages will then be transported to Hong Kong by land and brokers there re-label the eels as local produce for export.

The eels, known as “white diamonds," will likely remain a hot commodity for smugglers until authorities come up with a way to crack down on the practice.


Fishing for Solutions

As we just saw, the price of baby eels is soaring as demand remains strong in Japan, but people in the country are taking various measures to help conserve eel stocks.

Customs agents in Taiwan have to keep their eyes peeled for more than just the usual contraband -- they're on the lookout for endangered fish too. In late November, they caught 8 people carrying more than 100 bags of baby eels, worth about 500,000 dollars.

Taiwan prohibits the export of baby eels to conserve dwindling stocks. But experts say the majority of local catches are smuggled out, mainly to Hong Kong. Exporters there can easily re-label them as Hong Kong produce and ship them to Japan.

Eel farmers across the country have become increasingly dependent on imports as domestic catches fall far short of demand. Prices have soared more than 3-fold in recent years, and that's hurting farmers like Shigeji Noguchi, who used to buy his eel fry from Hong Kong.

"The price keeps soaring. It’s tough, we can’t keep up," Noguchi says.

He used to ship most of his produce for the traditional eel feast day in July, when consumption of the fish peaks -- and so do the prices. But Noguchi has decided to forgo that period, and has changed his farming schedule.

He's now buying baby eels when demand from other farmers drops. He says it will put a dent in his profits but he hopes it will contribute to proper management of dwindling eel stocks.

"I can buy baby eels at half the price because market supplies are left over, so I don’t have to worry too much about running the farm," Noguchi says.

Restaurant owners are also worried about eel trading. Some are changing their business styles to help straighten out the market.

Tadaaki Sekino used to buy 3 times as much eel as usual for the mid-summer feast. But he’s stopped doing it, and he doesn’t advertise the event either. Sekino says the quality often drops in the peak season. He’s been buying less, so he can serve customers only the best.

His restaurant runs out of eels before the evening. But Sekino is willing to take on these painful reforms, if they'll help pass on the culinary tradition to future generations.

"We cook and sell an endangered species," Sekino says. "I think we need to take a bigger responsibility."

An international conference on wildlife conservation has taken a new step: Member countries have agreed to study the global trade of eels. Experts say they might bring about rigid restrictions in a few years if overfishing and trafficking don't improve.