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Trade restrictions likely for vanishing Japanese eel

Publication Date : 24-07-2014


The Japanese eel, one of the country’s most beloved foods, is facing a crisis. In response to a sharp decline in the number of glass eels (an early juvenile phase in the eel’s life cycle), the Japanese eel was classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in June. As a result, there is a risk that juvenile eels will become subject to import and export restrictions in the near future. Concerns about the depletion of eels have been expressed long before, but what has caused the present serious situation surrounding eel?

Ahead of Doyo no Ushi, a traditional eel-eating day that will fall on July 29 this year, industry insiders and consumers alike are voicing concerns about the issue.

Kazuhiko Matsunobu, 69, who has cultivated eel for 35 years, could not hide his shock at learning the Japanese eel was classified as an endangered species, saying: “I had been concerned since long ago about depleted sources of eels due to excessive fishing. But I never thought this would actually happen.”

In the 1960s, annual glass eel catches exceeded 200 tonnes, but by 2013 that figure had dropped drastically to just 5 tonnes. While this year’s catches have recovered modestly to 16 tons, the figure is still below even one-tenth of its peak.

The Japanese eel is classified under the “1B” category, the second highest of the three risk levels for endangered species. According to IUCN standards, species whose numbers drop by more than 50 per cent in three generations, or 30 years, are classified as 1B.

Jun Aoyama, professor at the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute at the University of Tokyo said: “The decline of [the Japanese eel] will go far beyond 50 per cent in the long run. It could move a category higher [on the risk scale].”

Matsunobu has been calling for protections on eels on their way out to sea to spawn in autumn and winter ever since he headed a local producers association in the 1990s.

Starting around November and continuing into spring, juvenile eels gather at river mouths around the county on nights close to the largest tidal ranges.

The juvenile Japanese eels swimming up tide-swollen rivers are usually around five centimeters long and are easy to scoop up in nets.

“When you fish for young eels, you don’t need any start-up capital. There’s no better business,” Matsunobu said ironically.

Fishermen used to make several hundred thousand yen in just one night, a promise that brought great excitement.

Overfishing of adult eels and environmental degradation of rivers has also reduced the number of juvenile eels.

But while those doing the catching were raking it in, the businesses that bought the high-priced juvenile eels to raise them to adulthood were failing left and right.

The Japanese eel is one of 19 eel species worldwide. More than 99 per cent of the product consumed domestically is farmed by raising eels caught in the wild while young.

In 2013, there were about 32,600 tonnes of eels consumed nationwide, 44 per cent of which was produced domestically. Nearly all of that that figure consisted of the Japanese eel species.

The remaining 56 per cent was imported from China, Taiwan and elsewhere, either alive or already broiled and basted in the traditional sweet sauce.

Around 20 tons of juvenile eels are said to be needed to supply the nation’s aquaculture ponds.

With the domestic supply declining, businesses have been forced to make do with imports from China, Taiwan and elsewhere, but recently even this has not been enough.

The government has been slow to respond across the board. It was not until 2012 that the Fisheries Agency put in place emergency countermeasures.

Bans on fishing for eels heading out to sea to spawn were first implemented by prefectures, including Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima.

Kochi Prefecture plans to prohibit the practice beginning in October, but many prefectures have yet to act.

The responses from the national and local governments have been disjointed, the result being a significant delay in acting to protect this resource.

Ecological mystery

One reason for the slow response is that much is still unclear about the life and habitat of eels.

In 2009, a team from the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute led by Prof. Katsumi Tsukamoto, who currently works at Nihon University, successfully collected eggs and located eel spawning grounds.

Japanese eels leaving the nation’s rivers travel 2,000 kilometres or more to areas near the Mariana Trench to spawn, they learned. Yet many aspects of eel ecology remain unclear, migration routes included.

The Fisheries Agency even now does not have an accurate idea of how many eels are out there.

“Without understanding the ecology, it was difficult to establish grounds for banning the fishing of juvenile eels,” a senior agency official said.

Eel is big in Japan, where 70 per cent of the world’s eels are consumed.

The Japanese eel is listed as an endangered species by the IUCN, and is to be discussed at a 2016 meeting on the Washington Convention.

Many analysts believe trade restrictions will eventually be placed on Japanese eel.

If this were to occur, and all imports of juvenile and adult eels were to stop, one industry calculation estimates that Japan could only obtain about 20 per cent of the eels usually consumed in a year.

This would likely send prices even higher, making eels an even rarer delicacy.


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