TRAFFIC report tries to pin down slippery eel trade
Monday, July 13, 2015 at 6:33
TRAFFIC in Fisheries, In Asia, Report launch

in Japanese l in Chinese

Photos (c) TRAFFIC

Tokyo, Japan, 13th July 2015—Production and consumption patterns for eels in East Asia are constantly changing, with new markets and trade routes emerging, meaning strong regional and international co-ordination is needed to implement eel conservation and management measures, finds a new TRAFFIC report.

TRAFFIC’s analysis, published today in Eel market dynamics: an analysis of Anguilla production, trade and consumption in East Asia (PDF, 3 MB), also finds that significant discrepancies exist in data on eel usage in the region. [1]

“This is the first time that all publically available data on eel production, trade and consumption in East Asia have been combined—this study marks a significant step forward in trying to unravel the complexities of the East Asian eel trade,” said Hiromi Shiraishi, a Programme Officer for TRAFFIC in Japan and a report co-author.

Eel production has steadily increased worldwide over the last 30 years, mainly because of the expansion of eel-farming, which accounted for 95% of total production in 2013, according to FAO data. Eel farming is reliant on growing out juvenile eels (“glass eels”) from wild stocks since breeding in captivity is not yet commercially viable. Most of this expansion took place in East Asian countries/territories, with mainland China alone responsible for nearly 85% of global eel production in 2013.

However, global eel production and consumption appears to have peaked and may now be going into reverse because of declining availability of wild stocks, controls on trade in glass eels, steep price increases, and changes in consumer behaviour affected by various issues including prices and food safety.

Global demand for eels of the genus Anguilla has traditionally been driven by consumption in East Asia, especially in Japan. There are wide differences between data from the FAO, which indicate that Japan’s consumption has fallen over the last decade from ~60% to 15% of global eel production, and from East Asian sources, which suggest that the Japanese still consumed 30-45% in 2012-2013.

While Japan’s role as an eel consumer appears to have declined, there has been a rising popularity in Japanese cuisine and a consequent increase in the number of Japanese restaurants offering eel dishes overseas. Meanwhile, combined trade and FAO production data from China indicate a significant increase in domestic eel consumption over the past decade, reaching an estimated 150,000 tonnes in both 2012 and 2013, although once again large data discrepancies are evident.

Historically, farming and trade in East Asia involved the Japanese Eel Anguilla japonica, native to the region. From the 1990s, with growing scarcity of A. japonica, large quantities of European Eel A. anguilla glass eels were also imported. Concerns over the impact international trade was having on A. anguilla led to trade in it being regulated through a listing in Appendix II of CITES in 2007, and in December 2010, the European Union banned all trade in A. anguilla from the EU. As a consequence the Americas and South-East Asia have become increasingly important sources of juvenile eels of other Anguilla species for farms in East Asia.

“As one species becomes costly or unavailable, eel farmers in East Asia move onto the next: sourcing has moved from Japan to other East Asian countries/territories, then to Europe, the Americas and now South-east Asia—together with shifting markets, this makes keeping up with the international eel trade and consequently its legality and traceability extremely challenging,” said Vicki Crook, Wildlife Trade Analyst for TRAFFIC and co-author of the new report.

Although less significant than Japan or mainland China, TRAFFIC’s analysis also suggests that the domestic market for eels in South Korea has increased in the past decade, reportedly in response to a decline in meat consumption for health and food safety reasons. Customs trade data suggest that other important markets for eels produced in mainland China may be emerging, such as Russia, although data discrepancies make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the importance of any new/emerging markets.

Possible reasons for discrepancies in data analysed for this report include the number of intermediaries through which they are passed prior to official reporting, a lack of comparability between Customs codes, incorrect application of Customs codes and under(over)-reporting of farming production.

Many records of live eel fry imports into East Asia over the past decade have no corresponding records in exporter data. Customs and seizures data and other sources show that large quantities of eel fry have been exported illegally from Europe, the Philippines, Indonesia and also within East Asia over recent years, indicating that illegally-sourced glass eels are being used in East Asian farms. There are doubts over the legality not only of European Eels A. anguilla grown out in mainland China farms, which are continuing to be re-exported many years after glass eels could be legally sourced from the European Union, but also Japanese Eels A. japonica, which continue to be fished and traded illegally in the region.

Changing farming, trade and demand dynamics are a conservation concern particularly for temperate eel species. European Eel is currently listed as Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and Japanese Eel and American Eel A. rostrata are listed as Endangered. There are fewer data for tropical Anguilla species, but conservation concerns also exist for several of these, including A. bicolor (Near Threatened), which because of its similar taste and texture is a popular second choice when Japanese Eel and European eel are unavailable.

Click to view an annimated map of mainland China exports of prepared/preserved eel by destination, 2004–2014, tonnesTRAFFIC concludes its report with regionally collaborative recommendations for enhancing the traceability of sourcing, farming and trade of eels, and the development of appropriate management and conservation decisions.

“Each East Asian country/territory needs to consider its evolving role in the exploitation of this common resource and to work together to develop and implement eel management and conservation measures,” said TRAFFIC’s Hiromi Shiraishi.



[1] Data sources used include Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) global production and trade figures, the 2014 “Joint Statement” in which mainland China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan agreed to restrict wild-caught eel fry input into farms, Unagi net, UN Comtrade, East Asian Customs, and the CITES trade database, in addition to literature and internet research, stakeholder interviews, and targeted online and physical market surveys.

Article originally appeared on TRAFFIC (
See website for complete article licensing information.