In Japan, summer is the season of eel.
On the sweltering midsummer days between mid-July and early August, it's traditional to eat a plate of golden-brown broiled unagi kabayaki, or broiled eel. The popular dish is believed to help people stay healthy during the hot weather.
But the tradition is now at risk. Skyrocketing demand for glass eels, once considered a highbrow delicacy, is pushing fishermen to exhaust the population and causing prices to soar. A number of East Asian countries including Japan have proposed ideas on how to preserve the wild eel, but there are so far no concrete efforts underway to curb the trend.
Ida Tetsuji, a columnist from Nippon.com, a Japanese news website, described how the production of eels has been increased fourfold over recent decades to satisfy the increased eel consumption:
Domestic eel production in Japan held at about 40,000 tons a year through the mid-1980s. This was supplemented by imports from Taiwan, which ranged from about 25,000 tons to a high of around 40,000 tons. […] In 2000 a record high of over 130,000 tons of eel products were imported from China and Taiwan, and domestic sales volume rose to almost 160,000 tons, also a record high. This was almost double the volume of sales 15 years earlier.
A common misconception is that glass eels can be farmed to keep up with the increased demand. However, eels are catadromous, meaning that part of their life circle is in freshwater and part in saltwater. Since there was no current method to reproduce the eel larvae, the fishermen need to catch the wild glass eels when they enter the river and travel upstream and farm them in ponds.
So without a way to replenish the eel population in the face of such demand, the number of these glass eels caught by fishermen in recent years continues to decrease. “Dogfamily”, an independent reporter in a Taiwanese citizen news portal, Newsmarket, reported [zh] the reality on March 18, 2013:
The price of glass eels has soared as a result. Dogfamily [zh] pointed out:
The shortage in supply has resulted in smuggling activities, Dogfamily [zh] explained:
European eels have already been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in June 2007. Earlier on this year, the U.S had considered submitting a proposal for an international trade regulation on eel catches in CITES. At the same time, the Japanese Environment Ministry also designated the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction on its red list of endangered freshwater and brackish water fish in last February. However, the move is not legally binding.
In reaction to the pressure for eel preservation, a number of East Asian countries, including Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea have held several conferences and several preservation procedures have been proposed, including rehabilitation of the eels’ natural environment, restrictions on eel export, and release of adult eels in the rivers.
Nevertheless, with such a huge consumer market, eel merchants will continue to find new ways to make profit. In fact, the Japanese merchants have turned to African eels as an alternative, Dogfamily [zh] reported:
At the same time, international NGO, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) has also discovered that the Philippines has started exporting large amount of Japanese eels and Luzon eels, a newly discovered species, out of the country:
In July (2012), TRAFFIC surveys found almost 50 listings from businesses in the Philippines offering eel fry or glass eels for sale through online B2B platform Alibaba.com. Several reported they could supply for export hundreds of kilos of glass eels of a variety of eel species every month.
To break the demand-supply cycle, some Japanese have started consumer campaigns to reduce the consumption of eels. Ida Tetsuji on Nippon.com wrote:
Consumers and distributors of eels also bear considerable responsibility for the situation. As a result of the unsustainable inflow of large quantities of imports, eels, formerly considered a deluxe food, have turned into a cheap item sold in bulk through convenience stores and supermarkets […] We need to take this opportunity to transform the eel business from its low-profit, high-volume “quantity over quality” model back to a “quality over quantity” approach. Otherwise the stocks will become even more seriously depleted, and we are liable to sink into a descending spiral in which consumers tire of low-quality eels and stop buying them, causing the eel industry’s profits to decline further and the business as a whole to weaken.
Tirrano, a Japanese blogger from Decent Point, also believed [ja] that despite the gravity of the problem, the solution is rather easy: