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Japan's eel prices likely to slither downward as catches increase this year

Publication Date : 17-06-2014


Eel prices are likely to fall this summer, a welcome relief from the high prices consumers have been faced with in recent years.

Catches of glass eels or eel fry are more than twice as large as last year and the market anticipates eel prices will decline in the near future. The prices of imported eels are already falling.

Ahead of Doyo no Ushi, a traditional eel-eating day that falls on July 29 this year, some supermarkets and other eel dealers have started selling eels at prices 10 per cent to 20 per cent lower than last year.

Restaurants specialising in unaju—grilled eel over a bed of rice—are also likely to offer the dish at lower prices, observers said.

Adult eels are believed to lay eggs in seas near Guam. Sea currents then carry hatched elvers to river mouths in Japan, China and other countries. The eel-catching season is from December through April and they are shipped to market after being raised in aquaculture ponds for six months to one year.

The young eel catch dropped sharply to 5.2 tonnes in 2013 due to excessive fishing and deterioration of their habitat. In the 1960s, annual catches exceeded 200 tonnes.

Summit Inc., a supermarket operator with stores mainly in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures, expects the purchase price of eels produced in China will be 3,900 yen (US$38) per kilogram, down 300 yen from last year, according to the retailer.

“[Eel] prices are likely to fall rapidly from the beginning of autumn, when the supply of eels increases and demand slows down,” a buyer for the company said.

Maruei, a supermarket operator that has shops mainly in Chiba Prefecture, said the cost of purchasing eels is about 15 per cent lower than last year. The price of eels sold at the supermarket chain will be 10 per cent to 20 per cent lower, it said.

The wholesale price of grilled eel imported from China is about 30 per cent lower than last year, according to the Japan Eel Importers Association.

“Some importers sell grilled eel at lower prices because they want to sell them when their market prices remain relatively high,” association director Takashi Moriyama said.

Some supermarkets began selling a grilled eel imported from China for as little as 1,000 yen.

The recovery in the elver catch is behind the price drop, sources said.

About 25 tonnes of elvers of Nihon unagi, or Japanese eel, were put into aquaculture ponds from December to April, according to the Union of Eel Farmers Corporation of Japan. The figure was almost the double the 12.6 tonnes seen in the previous fishing season. The number of Nihon unagi elvers put into aquaculture ponds has increased drastically in China and Taiwan and the figure encompassing the whole of East Asia is said to have reached about 80 tonnes, nearly four times the previous season’s level.

By the end of April, the average trading price of young eels was 1.1 million yen to 1.2 million yen per kilogram, half the level the year before, according to sources. Adult eels of these elvers have yet to be sold at this price. However, the trading price of eels produced in Japan has also began falling.

In the Tokai region, one of Japan’s main eel producers, a kilogram of live adult eels, or five to six adult eels, remained high at about 5,200 yen. However, the most recent price has fallen by nearly 10 per cent to about 4,600 yen.

“We increased the price [on our menu] three times in the last three years, so young people could hardly afford it,” said an employee at a Tokyo restaurant specialised in eel dishes. “We hope the price [of eels] will continue to fall.”

However, eel resources have sharply decreased over the longer term. The recent recovery of young eel catches is attributable to favourable conditions, including shifts in ocean currents, according to sources. However, it is unknown whether this trend will continue next year and beyond.

The Japanese eel has been classified as an endangered species in the latest Red List released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on Thursday.

Although the designation will not lead to an immediate ban on catches, such a development will affect discussions by the Washington Convention, which limits international trading of rare species. If the Japanese eel becomes the subject of protection at the 2016 convention, restrictions could be placed on the popular national delicacy, including imports, sources said.


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