A stunning amount of illegal eel can be found in US sushi. Organized crime likely to blame. Elizabeth Weise USA TODAY

 Are those illegal eels in your unagi? A recent study found 44% of North American eel samples, that's unagi when used in sushi, were actually from the critically endangered European eel, whose export has been illegal since 2010. 

Eel has long been a beloved component of Japanese cuisine. Marinated and grilled it is served in a donburi dish with rice or as an ingredient in sushi, where it's generally listed as unagi, Japanese for eel.

With the popularity of Japanese cuisine worldwide, eel consumption has spiked. In 2019 a total of 280,000 tons of freshwater eels were produced for the consumer market. 

Unfortunately, Japan's native eel has been overfished and is now endangered, so sellers have turned to the critically-endangered European eel (Anguilla anguilla), but its  population is estimated to be 5% of what it once was. To protect the species, the European Union banned their exportation in 2010.

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Which is why researchers in the United Kingdom were stunned at what they found when they did DNA analysis of unagi samples purchased in Europe, North America and Asia.

"I was very surprised to find so much European eel in our North American samples – because it’s illegal to export it," said Andrew Griffiths, a lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Exeter and lead author on the study.

Those levels of European eel could link the unagi in your sushi to global organized crime rings depleting an ancient species on the brink of extinction.

"It's really suggestive of some sort of illegal sale and links to illegal trafficking of live eels to Asia."

Juvenile European eels, called glass eels, after being netted in the Severn river in the United Kingdom in 2017.

What did university researchers find?

Fish fraud has long been a problem, with cheaper fish being sold as pricier fillets. Cheap tilapia is sold as rare red snapper. Rounds cut from skate wings can be sold as pricey scallops.

The issue with eels is a little more complex. Highly endangered European baby eels are being poached in Europe and smuggled to Asia where they're grown out in fish farms and sold back to Japan, Europe and North America – labeled only as "eel" according to a March paper in the journal Trends in Organized Crime.

This eel study actually got its start in the San Francisco Bay area, when one of the authors, Kristen Steele, was working there. "I started noticing a seeming increase in the number of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area selling eel in various forms and was surprised, dismayed and intrigued," she said. 

Steele, at the University College London, together with researchers at the University of Exeter led a study that gathered 114 samples of eel sold in Europe, North America and Asia. The eel samples mostly came from Japanese restaurants as sushi though a small number were from traditional dishes sold in the United Kingdom including jellied, stewed and smoked eel.

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American glass eels, the juvenile form of the American eel. These eels, (Anguilla rostrata), are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The researchers did DNA analysis of each sample and found that 44% of the North American samples were European eel and 56% were American eel.  There were no Japanese eel (Anguilla rostrata) at all in the samples, which came from New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, San Diego, Boston and Reno. 

In Continental Europe, 35% of the samples were Japanese eel and 65% American eel, which is threatened but whose export is legal.

"It wasn't what we were expecting," said Griffiths. 

Eel sushi dishes purchased in the United Kingdom.  Grilled, barbequed eel is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine and often referred to as unagi on menus in the United States.

What's wrong with European eels ending up as unagi in sushi?

Because of habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and overfishing, the European eel population has undergone massive declines since the 1960s, dropping to 5% of what it once was. The species was declared critically endangered in 2009 and in 2010 the European Union banned its import or export.

Because of that, there shouldn't have been lots of European eel ending up as sushi in North America, said Griffiths.

"If our results are broadly representative of sales of European eel in North America, it is difficult to account for all the European eel on sale via licensed and legal routes," he said. 

How do the mysterious origins of eels fit into this?

Exactly how eels reproduced was a mystery for thousands of years. Only in the last decade was it finally unraveled

European and American eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic ocean. The tiny baby eels swim to coastal areas and then upriver. Called glass eels at this point, they are transparent and no longer than a pinky finger.

For millennia, no one realized glass eels were actually the juvenile form of adult eels, they were thought to be another species entirely. When the eels reach freshwater they grow for a decade or more before they head back to the ocean to reproduce. 

To this day, no one has been able to mimic the lifecycle of eels enough to farm them the way salmon and other fish are farmed. Instead, the tiny glass eels are caught in rivers and then fattened up in eels farms for harvest – almost entirely in China.

A European eel (Anguilla anguilla). A 2023 study found that 44% of the grilled, barbequed unagi (eel) sushi samples in North America tested by researchers at the University of Exeter was in fact from critically endangered European eels, whose export from Europe has been illegal since 2010.

How do European eels end up in Chinese eel farms?

There is a massive illegal trade in European glass eels. Poachers use nets to gather them from European rivers and streams, selling them to middlemen for thousands of dollars a pound. These are then sold to smugglers who either conceal them in fresh produce shipments or luggage to get them to Asia.

The tiny eels generally end up in China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, where over 600 eel farms and eel processing plants are located. It's estimated that 87% of the world's eel farms are located in China. 

According to a paper published on March 22 in the journal Trends in Organized Crime, the glass eels are often kept in hidden ponds in underground warehouses near airports before being shipped.

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In 2022, European law enforcement intercepted 2,755 pounds of glass eels worth an estimated $2 million, along with arresting 49 individuals involved in the smuggling trade.

A European glass eel, the juvenile form of the European eel,  (Anguilla anguilla). The European eel is listed as critically threatened, currently at only 5 to 10% of its historic population. The eels cannot legally be exported from Europe but are poached there and sent to Asia to be grown out in eel farms and then sold as unagi, a Japanese grilled delicacy used in sushi and other dishes.

American glass eels are also harvested, though it's prohibited in all states except Maine and South Carolina. The species isn't considered endangered by the United States but is so depleted it was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's endangered list in 2014.

While European eel was most common in samples taken in North America, Griffiths said that worldwide, American eel made up 66% of unagi products, meaning possible poachers seem to be shifting to US-sourced glass eels.  


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