Will the day come, three years from now, when "unagi" (eels) vanish from the dinner table? The Standing Committee of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (referred to as the Washington Convention for short), convened on Sept 25 in Johannesburg, South Africa. It appears that the EU is backing a moratorium on eel harvesting and if it passes, an expert tells Yukan Fuji (Sept 27), then three years from now, trade in illegally caught or transported eel fry used for fish farming (aquaculture) will be halted.
Should such moves be implemented and penalties imposed on violators, it's still uncertain if they will have any impact in saving the eels.
Following large imports of eel fry from Europe by China, the need for invoking the Washington Convention was raised, and in 2009, the EU effectively banned imports and exports of eels. This, however, had the result of increasing demand for eels from North America, and the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) eventually raised an alarm, advocating that both North American and Japanese eels should be designated endangered species.
In September 2014, in a move to prevent overharvesting and head off depletion, Japan, together with China, Taiwan and South Korea, agreed to reduce catches of eel fry by 20%. This agreement, however, had no provision for enforcement and while Japan sought firm commitments, China adopted a negative attitude, and the accord seems doomed to failure.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong, whose own fishing fleet does not engage in fishing of eel fry, has nonetheless become a major exporter of the fry to Japan through various shady dealings.
Associate professor Kenzo Kaifu of Chuo University, an authority on conservation ecology, expressed his concern, saying, "The current agreement to cut 20% of eel fry lacks sufficient scientific evidence; and on the other hand there appears to be no reduction in eel consumption."
Due to a shortage of data, the Washington Convention committee may delay its vote on proposals to reduce the catch. But the data provided by various countries that was used for the EU proposal is considered sufficient for debating future measures.
"The conditions affecting Japan's eel catch are approaching a crisis," the aforementioned Kaifu warned. "If things don't change and we aren't able to obtain the understanding of various countries, there's a strong likelihood that three years from now limits will be placed on the size of the catch."
Eels' life cycle is not fully understood. In huge swarms, they migrate to Japan from far to the south, near Guam. Efforts to breed them in captivity have up to now been unsuccessful. Due to overfishing and perhaps some other causes, such as changes in ocean temperature, pollution, or a combination of ecological factors, the number of eel fry keeps dropping.
Several years ago, a severe supply pinch led some of Tokyo's famous eel specialty restaurants, such as the Suekawa restaurant in Koenji, Suginami Ward; Yoshikawa restaurant in Tsukishima, Chuo Ward; and Benkei restaurant in Ueno, Taito Ward, to close permanently.
Eel imports from Taiwan and China have helped to ease the shortage, but costs have soared and low-budget chains favored by salarymen, such as Yoshinoya and Sukiya, years ago dropped eel from their summer menus. Hanaya Yohei, a Japanese-style family restaurant chain, also halted sales of "una-ju" (grilled eel over rice in a lacquered box) several years ago due to difficulties in securing stable supplies.© Japan Today