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Adored and endangered: The complex world of the Japanese eel

24 Comments
By Mathias CENA

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These eels are extinct in most waterways in Japan. The main problem is damming of the watercourses. The eels need to travel to the sea and then back up the river to spawn. Overfishing is also a big problem. There needs to be a ban on eel hunting for a short time to allow stocks to recover. However, there is little chance of that happening with the demand so high. People don’t care where it comes from as long as they can get their eel fix.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Anything is a delicacy if you marinade it in sugar and soy sauce.

Maybe they can make cockroaches a new, more eco-conscious delicacy.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

snowymountainhellToday  07:47 am JST

Delicious but the researcher claims the intimate responsibility for conservation is the consumer? Seems it was the over-commercialization of the delicacy created the overfishing of the notably shy fish. Recall the lower prices & abundant availability of even unagi obento at many stations just 15 years ago.

Eel stocks all over the world have been declining fordecades, the main reason the destruction and/or obstruction of waters necessary for the eel to survive. The main culprit is the building of dams all over the world.

Consumption of Eel is hardly unique to Japan. You can find smoked eel in upstate New York USA as well as Ireland. London used be famous for Jellied Eel. All throughout Europe Eel is a delicacy.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

The reason the yield is 1/10th of what it was in 1960 is because of the hundreds of dams they've unecessarily built on the rivers here since then.

You reap what you sow.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

@Chabbawanga

Anything is a delicacy if you marinade it in sugar and soy sauce.

Maybe they can make cockroaches a new, more eco-conscious delicacy.

Actually, crickets which are eaten in Japan has more protein than beef. And roaches are used as natural garbage disposals for food waste products.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Until proper fisheries controls are put in place (for example banning the eating of glass eels …no brainer there )this will become common .Last year it was Sanma (blame it on China ) this year it’s salmon (again China ) every year it eels (can’t blame that one oops)

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Here is a thought. Nobody catches, kills or eats any for two years to let numbers increase. Then catch and kill one year out of every three to make them more available and more appreciated. Once numbers are back to what they one were then catch, kill and consume one year out of every two. Make it a tradition.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Delicious but the researcher claims the intimate responsibility for conservation is the consumer? Seems it was the over-commercialization of the delicacy created the overfishing of the notably shy fish. Recall the lower prices & abundant availability of even unagi obento at many stations just 15 years ago.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Do agree with the latter point: “We need to appreciate each eel we eat, keeping in mind that this is a precious natural resource." Seems Aichi’s Hitsumabushi-style is best to appreciate and savor every morsel of this delicious delicacy.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

In Shizuoka Prefecture, 66-year-old Hachisuka's restaurant in Hamamatsu city has used the same basting sauce base for four decades.

"I adjust it as I go. It mustn't be too sweet or too salty," he told AFP.

This kind of veneration of Japanese cooking always makes me laugh. Four decades ago is Margaret Thatcher, Ronnie Reagan, AC/DC's Back in Black, .... Very soon it will be four decades since New Order released Blue Monday (March 1983). This is not ancient history or some ancient culinary tradition. Thousands of trucker stops and greasy spoon cafes will have been making the same fry-ups for forty plus years.

If he's adjusting it as he goes, presumably its not exactly "the same" ;)

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Looks like people should stop eating eel for a while but more importantly stopping destroying habitats and that the biggest issue, Japanese estuaries and rivers are dredged and ci created over. Thai happened also in many other Asian countries. Poaching of glass eel is rampant in Europe and more lucrative than drugs reports say. Vegetarian anyone?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

This was a great article, I definitely learned a lot!

I knew about the endangered status of eels a while ago, which is why I stopped eating it even though it was one of my favorite dishes here. But I didn't know about the black market for eel, and how much Japan imports.

I agree that the only solution is to stop eating it for a while and let the population bounce back. Simple, but how to support the people whose livelihoods depends on eel? Governments will need to focus on this in the future.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Well, it's not really surprising. I don't know how much the situation has changed over the years but you just have to look back at the articles on this topic from the last few years to see the problems.

An article by Kyodo from June 2017

Discrepancies in Japanese eel catches suggest poaching, underreporting

Nearly half of juvenile Japanese eels farmed in the country may have been illegally caught, according to a Kyodo News survey. The Japanese eel is an endangered species.

The survey, released Wednesday, found that 45.45 percent of young eels caught in Japan between November 2016 and April 2017 may have lacked prefectural authorization or were underreported.

But it is not only affecting the Japanese eel. Back in 2013 Japan consumed more than 70% of the global catch. Like this article pointed out at least in the past the way eels found their way to Japan has at least been questionable.

Again Kyodo March 2019

80% of young eels farmed in Japan may have been smuggled from Taiwan via Hong Kong

About 80 percent of young eels put into aquaculture pools in Japan in December and January may have been smuggled from Taiwan via Hong Kong, according to trade data and sources close to the matter.

Around 6 tons of juvenile eels were imported to Japan from Hong Kong in those two months, according to government data, but Hong Kong does not engage in eel fishing, raising suspicions about their origin. Industry observers say most may have been illegally brought from Taiwan, which bans eel exports.

There was also an editorial in 2019 on The Japan Times on that topic

Musing over the sustainability of eel consumption

The annual domestic catch of juvenile eels, which stood around 50 tons in the late 1970s, has been on a long-term decline. During the latest season (from last November to May), the catch was a mere 3.7 tons — less than half the previous season and only 13 percent of the 27.5 tons caught in 2006, which was the largest catch on record since the Fisheries Agency started collecting the relevant data in 2003.

As a consequence, many of the juvenile eels used for domestic cultivation this season were imported, and imported juvenile eels — whose cross-border trade has incurred suspicions of smuggling and poaching due to its lack of transparency — plays a large part in consumption in Japan. In contrast to the poor domestic catch, juvenile eel imports reached 11.5 tons, the second-largest on record. About 75 percent of the juvenile eel placed in aquaculture ponds in Japan were reportedly imported from Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is not engaged in the farming of juvenile eels, leading experts and environmental groups to suspect that the eels were in fact smuggled from Taiwan — which prohibits the export of juvenile eels — via Hong Kong.

Authorities in the European Union also suspect that young European eels — whose export outside of the bloc is prohibited — are poached and smuggled in growing numbers and that many of the eels end up in the Japanese market after being raised in Chinese aquaculture ponds.

And in the end part will be thrown away since they reach their best-by date.

Kyodo June 2018

At least 2.7 tons of broiled eel, including an endangered Japanese species, was thrown away by the nation’s retailers last year, Greenpeace Japan said Monday, citing the results of a survey.

It is customary to eat grilled or fried eel in late July in hope of beating the summer heat, and the practice is extensively advertised during this special sales promotion period.

According to the Greenpeace survey, a large amount of cooked eel was disposed of mainly because it had reached its best-by date.

The environmental group conducted the survey from last September through January, contacting 18 eel retailers, 16 of which responded.

The group said disposal was confirmed by at least 10 retailers, including Aeon Co. and Maruetsu Inc.

Life Corp replied that the amount of its disposed eel was “nearly zero.”

Only five companies disclosed the volume of dumped eel, amounting to a gross weight of 2.73 tons, equivalent to about 13,650 eels.

Only two retailers out of the 16 that replied — Pal System and Yaoko Co. — said they did not dispose of any eel, while Seiyu GK, a Japanese subsidiary of Walmart Inc., gave an answer of “nondisclosure.”

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I assume that "veggie"-eel meat will be invented out of plants, and become popular as neo-Japanese food. There are already veggie seafoods available, some of whose taste are very fine, undistinguished from that of real natural ones. High tech can protect endangered species and enrich food culture.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

Have a look at Seaspiracy all, and you'll understand that there's no fisheries control that holds, and all the "sustainably fishing" story is a mockery.

We must look at a different diet that preserves living natural inhabitats, everything points to a plant-based diet...I enjoy my shoujin unagi time by time and don't miss the real thing too much.

Protecting the sea means protecting yourself, we are all connected to this living thing.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

I ate a dish of unaju (eel on rice) at an all-Oriental restaurant about 6 years ago and I liked it. Eaten it a few times since.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

This "many unknowns about how they reproduce" makes me laugh. Scientists are prepared to search the universe for some distant planets, launching space telescopes, trying to colonize Mars! Billions are spent on unnecessary things! But do not know how eels reproduce!!! It's frigging ridiculous!!!

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Endangered because of overfishing by a nation that refuses to put practically and the life of the thing they love ahead of "nostalgia" and entitlement. You get all these disgusting old codgers moaning: "I remember eating eel as a child. It was so delicious and I would lick my lips, covered in sauce. Now it is so expensive, and the portions small. I might not be able to get my eel anymore!"

There's far too pervasive an element to society in which they would rather rush something so much it is gone in a moment, then spend time lamenting it's gone and enjoy the memories rather than having allowed the moment to article last. There's also this growing idea that we don't need to change because somehow science will farm the things (then complain about the farmed product). So, fine, fish it out of existence. The only people you will have to blame is yourselves as you cry over a bowl rice with no eel.

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

Domestic grilled eel or "unaju" is one of my favorite dishes. An occasional "shirayaki" (eel minus the sauce) with a good "junmai" sake is nice too. Well worth the cost, I say.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

Outright ban for 10 years so stocks can increase.

How about we stop considering them as "stock" and refer to them as a living species with the right to exist?

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I ate one once. Once.

-9 ( +4 / -13 )

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