OTTAWA—An undistinguished shipping container in the Port of Vancouver turned into one of the largest busts of illegal wildlife products in Canadian history.
The container held 18 tonnes of eel meat, much from the critically-endangered European eel, intended for sushi diners and other epicures across the country and worth millions of dollars.
“This is probably our largest detention ever,” said Sheldon Jordan, director of wildlife enforcement for Environment Canada.
The eel meat was nabbed as part of “Operation Thunderstorm,” an international wildlife crime sting held last May that involved 92 countries and broke up illegal trade in everything from rosewood furniture to elephant ivory.
In Canada, officers found people trafficking in shark fins and controlled snakes, as well as products such as briefcases and handbags made from endangered species.
Customs officials found illegal shipments of ginseng from Canada.
A cache of 73 seabird eggs was discovered—a number that understates the impact because egg hunters destroy eggs in the nest to get the birds to lay fresh ones.
In Raymond, Mont., U.S. officials stopped a group of American hunters trying to get across the border with 150 poached snow geese.
Wildlife crime is a $200-billion business around the world and the fourth-most lucrative type of crime, said Jordan.
It's highly-organized and international in scope—as the story of the eels reveals.
Eel meat is popular in Asia, which used to feast on Japanese eels. When stocks of that fish depleted, the market turned to the European eel.
Eels don't reproduce in captivity. So baby eels, called elvers, were imported to Asia by the millions from Europe and populations fell by more than 90 percent.
Europe banned their export in 2010. But they're so easy to hide (thousands of elvers can be hidden in an ordinary piece of luggage) that poaching has grown into a major industry.
“We're estimating that at least 50 percent of the eel on the Canadian retail market is probably European eel that was brought in unlawfully,” said Jordan.
"It's mainly being used in sushi.
“If you see eel on sale in Canada, we figure there's a pretty high chance it contains European eel,” he added.
The investigation is complicated by the existence of a legal and regulated harvest of American eel.
The two species often are mixed in illegal shipments and the only way they can be told apart is through DNA analysis.
“Our DNA lab is just going full out doing testing trying to find out what percentage of this cargo shipment is European versus American,” Jordan noted.
Wildlife crime leaves a wide swath of destruction, he added. Not only does it create ecological damage, it also harms legitimate businesses.
“It's estimated that 15-20 percent of the wood on the world market comes from illegal sources and between 20 and 35 percent of paper,” Jordan said.
“That means it's out there and it's cheaper, and it's undermining Canadian jobs.”
Jordan said “Operation Thunderstorm,” the second such international effort, is likely to be repeated.
“I've got a feeling it's going to become an annual thing,” he remarked.