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Eels slipping away from consumers' budgets

29 Comments

"This summer you might not be able to eat 'unagi' (eel), warns Nikkan Gendai (May 18). It seems that for the third consecutive year catches of eel fingerlings are down, leading to spiraling prices.

So tight is the current supply, the tabloid reports, that famous old specialty restaurants have been successively shutting down. At the end of March, the 65-year-old Suekawa restaurant in Koenji, Suginami Ward, shut its doors. This was followed at the end of April by the demise of the 35-year-old Yoshikawa restaurant in Tsukishima, Chuo Ward, and then in mid-May, one of the most famous eel specialty restaurants in Tokyo's "shitamachi," Benkei in Ueno, went under after 65 years of operation.

"This year, not only have catches been down among domestically raised eels, but in China, Taiwan, South Korea and the rest of Asia as well," says a wholesaler at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. "The price for domestic eels is up to 9,000 yen per kilogram, and eel from China is around 5,000 yen.

"The procurement cost for eel restaurants is double that of last year, and about tenfold the level of eight years ago. No matter how much the places sell it for, they're going to lose money on the deal."

"Due to the spiraling costs for eel fingerlings, they've become difficult for operators to obtain, says Tetsuo Kaneko, a journalist who covers retailing and distribution. "Prices are on their way up to 3,000 yen for 'una-don' (grilled eel filets over a bowl of rice) -- about three times last year's price. That's no longer within the budget of the average household."

A spokesperson for Hanaya Yohei, a Japanese-style family restaurant chain, says that its outlets have halted sales of "una-ju" (eel and rice served in a lacquered box) due to difficulties in procuring stable supplies. Supermarkets are also reportedly in the process of giving up the idea of selling eel.

"In normal years, stores hold special sales for the spring 'ushi no hi' (special day on the lunar calendar on which eel is customarily consumed), which falls around the time of golden week," says the aforementioned wholesaler. "But this year, many of the stores halted sales entirely."

"Yes, the supermarkets are having a rough time," Kaneko confirms. "There's a chance they'll hold campaigns for substitute items, such as 'una-tama-don' (eel mixed with eggs and poured over rice) or perhaps 'anago-don' (conger eel over rice).

Some establishments have tried to introduce 'tennen unagi' (eels harvested from natural habitats) from the U.S., but these have not found much favor from Japanese consumers.

"They don't have fatty layers and the texture tends to be dry and crumbling, and they lack an attractive shape," the wholesaler points out. "By the time the importer gets them about one-third have already died in transit. Even with this unfavorable ratio we have to pay for the order anyway, without claiming any compensation."

By the time seasonal demand peaks around the end of July, eel aficionados might be left with no option but to forsake their traditional summer food -- or else grin and bear it with unpalatable imports from the U.S.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

29 Comments
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But why? Why are the eels harder to find now? Kind of a key piece of information missed out of the article there.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

I have the same questions. WHY are they harder to catch? WHY are their numbers dwindling?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Eel ecology is supposed to be pretty fragile. I read somewhere that the adults swim from around Guam to Japan to spawn, which is a pretty long trip. Good headline, by the way.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The big earthquake changed the flow of sea current and also did some havoc on the fragile ecology of eel population. It will take some time before the ecology is stabilized. Right now, we don't have fingerlings...so no eel.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

mikihouse@the first paragraph says "for the 3rd consecutive year," so last year's earthquake could not have been too big a factor.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

They are WAAAAYYYY too expensive here.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

"Some establishments have tried to introduce ‘tennen unagi’ (eels harvested from natural habitats) from the U.S., but these have not found much favor from Japanese consumers."

Ah, well, just change the labels so they say made in the Japan and suddenly they'll be the most delicious things in the world in the same people's eyes. If they're going to lament the COMPLETE loss of eels in their annual custom, surely eel from a different country would be a better alternative. If not, then let them go without -- but they shouldn't cry about not having any eel.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

The eels I've eaten here taste no different than the ones I've ate back home in my own country, Britain?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

zichi: "The eels I've eaten here taste no different than the ones I've ate back home in my own country, Britain?"

Tell that to a Japanese person and they'll just politely nod and smile, thinking you're nuts. I eat eel all the time when I visit South Korea and it's far better than any I've even here, and they have a lot more variety as well. And FAR from the domestic 9000 yen per eel they are extremely cheap in SK as well. If shops have to close down rather than lower their prices to get more consumers, then they do not deserve to be open. It's sad that some have to close down after so many years, but 'tradition' simply isn't enough to justify staying open when the costs are so high.

Anyway, back to the 'foreign eels aren't as good' thing, I repeat it's all just foolish image on the part of the Japanese, but you see it here ALL THE TIME. The beef is better, the fish is better (even though a lot of it is caught elsewhere), the sushi is better, etc. 'Made in Japan' stopped meaning superior quality long, long ago. Hence all the mislabeling.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

smithinjapan,

Tell that to a Japanese person and they'll just politely nod and smile, thinking you're nuts.....

They have probably never traveled overseas.

All the foods here which are also available back home, fruits, veg, fish, meat, are no more tasty than those. I like Kobe beef but it's no better than Scottish beef? Only the food I grew when I was living in the Alps. The other foods which we don't grow, bamboo, lotus, soba, soya, are all good.

Even after two decades, I'm still shocked when I buy cod, the size of which would have the cats back home complaining. I have given up buying it because for less money I can buy a large fish.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

If the numbers (despite the lack of concrete stastics) are dwindling so much, then I'm happy that supermarkets are considering pulling eel from their shelves. Give them a chance to repopulate before we munch them all!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

zichi: "All the foods here which are also available back home, fruits, veg, fish, meat, are no more tasty than those."

I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I'm saying that there's an idea in Japan that Japanese products are the greatest in the world. In some cases that's true, and in 99% of the cases it's not necessarily. You can see this time and time again, and the greatest example of it is when they have those weird variety shows and they ask people if they can taste the difference between A and B in blind taste tests. I remember when where a bunch of 'tarento' were asked to taste two types of 'crab'; one was genuine Hokkaido crab and the other that crab flavoured 'salad crab' you can buy for 100 yen. Half didn't know which was which and said 'umai' for both. No joke. They tried other things as well like your average run of the mill Aussie beef and Matsuzaka beef and in that case most got it wrong. My point is that if you SAY it's Japanese many Japanese will suddenly insist on its quality and delicious taste, wherein in reality it's no more delicious than that produced in many other places, domestic or internationally. Hence my comment that it's ridiculous that stuff that's made here is so expensive than everywhere else, and I feel no pity for these shops closing their doors when the products are readily available for import.

I mean come on... tiny melons for $10, a piece of fish for nearly $100?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Smithinjapan,

Sorry! I didn't word my sentence correctly. I know your are not disagreeing. What I was saying was that the foods in Japan and those same ones which are the same back home, eg carrots, taste no better here than those ones from the UK.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Unatoto near Asakusa station sells good tasting eel-don starting at 500 yen a bowl.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

zichi: "What I was saying was that the foods in Japan and those same ones which are the same back home, eg carrots, taste no better here than those ones from the UK."

Agreed. And not only the UK. Tell that to a Japanese, though, and many will disagree.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Wasn't there an earlier article warning of dire overfishing of eel? Remember: seven billion people on the planet. They are going to eat a lot eel, and every other danged thing. End result maaaaay be Soylent Green.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@Smithinjapan

I'm not disagreeing with you at all. I'm saying that there's an idea in Japan that Japanese products are the greatest in the world. In some cases that's true, and in 99% of the cases it's not necessarily.

It just goes to show, how peoples perception can be easily influenced often by national social media. I have tried eels in many countries and I don't taste THAT much of difference regulate and restrict themselves to only Japanese waters knowingly. But truth be told 10 years ago, prior to coming to Japan, I heard and read that Japan has the best and freshest food and fish in the world. Now I can honestly say that is NOT always necessarily true and I realize that. I bought some Unagi at Costco last year forgot what I paid, but it was really cheap (under 2000 yen), they were from China, got two big fat ones and the taste was the usual typical Unagi taste and it was great, family loved it and there were no complaints, it all comes down to the sauce (but then again, I am a westerner and my taste buds and palate are not as in tuned or as sensitive as the average Japanese) Having said that, I heard about these talento on TV doing these taste tests. But most Japanese don't want to hear or accept in ANY way that any of their produce is lacking or depending what the item is, inferior. Like strawberries, many Japanese believe that they grow the best batches and are the tastiest, when (to me at least) they are mostly sour, tart, white still. Coming from California, being one of the biggest strawberry producers in the world, the organically grown are deep red, sweet and big. Not trying to get off topic, but I think Japanese produce which are native to Japan and which are grown and harvested are often far better than the imported produce. It all depends on what you are eating. When it comes to Cheese, Japan losses, Beer...sorry...bakery, nope...potatoes, oh, boy and on and on. But if we talk about Japanese domestic foods like rice bamboo shoots, wasabi etc. then it is a different story. every country has something good to offer, not everything in Japan is THE best, but as a foreigner, what the heck do I know?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Interesting to see so many people think Unagi comes from the sea... Anago (sea snake) comes from the sea, unagi are fresh water eels. I agree they are not different from the ones I eat back home (although they are prepared differently). Typically big countries and island countries believe they have the best of everything. It isn't going to change and it is not just the Japanese. A good eel restaurant already costs 2000 to 3000 yen. Actually, I would imagine that if supermarkets cannot sell them, the eel restaurants will be able to survive even though they have to charge higher prices. If the supply drops, just sell it expensive until the supply can return. No point in overfishing and then selling cheaply and going bankrupt for the sake of keeping something the same.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Interesting to see so many people think Unagi comes from the sea...

http://www.japanjournal.jp/tjje/show_art.php?INDyear=06&INDmon=08&artid=de1e77be9fc1d8b2fe3172c035697af0&page=2

Though Japan is the world's largest consumer of eels, the spawning ground of the domestic variety (Anguilla japonica), which inhabits the East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea, has long been a mystery. Whereas the spawning grounds of the American and European eels were identified in the Atlantic during the early part of the twentieth century, half a century of hunting in Japan has been inconclusive, until now. A team led by Professor Tsukamoto Katsumi from the Ocean Research Institute of the University of Tokyo has discovered the spawning ground in the vicinity of the Suruga Seamount, approximately 200 kilometers northwest of Guam.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/16/us-usa-eels-maine-idUSBRE84F14K20120516

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Eels - The types most commonly served in restaurants are freshwater. Salt water eels are different... Nuff said.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unagi

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Tokyokawasaki@Sorry but not 'nuff said. The English wiki to which you refer is very incomplete concerning the eel's life stages. If you go to the Japanese for the same topic it states:

ウナギは淡水魚として知られているが、海で産卵・孵化を行い、淡水にさかのぼってくる「降河回遊(こうかかいゆう)」という生活形態をとる。

Translation: The unagi is know as a freshwater fish, but it spawns and eggs hatch in the ocean and then return to freshwater, a life stage system referred to as "kokkaiyuu" (literally descend river and return). In other words, like salmon.

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/ウナギ

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It's not surprising, since everybody started eating eel all year round instead of the usual times, and everybody started offering it, including family restaurants and conbini.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My father-in-law fishes them in rivers. He has said for the past 5 years that the numbers are decreasing. He cleans them, I cook them. Delicious!!!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This story is lacking in any environmental or science behind the reasons for the decline. Would not a department of fisheries or something have more information?

If the eel is overfished then there has to be a moratorium for it to return so less eel in future even if stocks rebound a little bit. There has to be a cutoff point between allowing a healthy stock and allowing a fishery to continue.

analogous to the treatment of tuna. I wonder how that's going? If no better than eel management then I wonder how Japan which is highly dependent on fish protein is going to deal with replacements? Once focus is removed from eel then other species will uptick. If those are also precarious, it creates a cascade / catabolic collapse situation.

Again knowing how serious it is to take or not depends on having departmental/environmental information rather than just current market events

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I laughed when I saw one piece of Chinese eel which would be just enough to make one bowl of una-don in the supermarket selling for almost 1,000 yen. Last year I could buy this for around 300 yen. Good thing there are still other food choices.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

“The price for domestic eels is up to 9,000 yen per kilogram, and eel from China is around 5,000 yen."

I'm going to do my part to rebuild the eel stocks for the Japanese, and just won't eat any eel this year. Somehow I'll get by...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Eels slipping away...

Good choice for a title!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I remember when where a bunch of 'tarento' were asked to taste two types of 'crab'; one was genuine Hokkaido crab and the other that crab flavoured 'salad crab' you can buy for 100 yen. Half didn't know which was which and said 'umai' for both. No joke. They tried other things as well like your average run of the mill Aussie beef and Matsuzaka beef and in that case most got it wrong.

It would take an extremely undiscerning person to be unable to spot real crab against fake crab side-by-side. The taste is different, and the texture of the fake crab should be quite obviously artificial next to the real thing.

One thing I've noticed with beef here is that any of the premium Japanese varieties - you needn't even bother with Kobe, Matsusaka, or Yonezawa - is of very high quality. It would be nice if you could say the same of the Australian beef in Japan as it's far cheaper, but in my experience it ranges from quite good to borderline inedible - real leathery crap. I've had the leather so many times I rarely bother to buy Australian any more unless I'm stewing it or mincing it. But that meltingly soft Japanese beef only works in certain contexts: it's not by definition better, as it's a very specific style. But it can certainly stand against any other beef that people might claim to be the world's finest.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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