The Environment Ministry on Friday designated the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction on its red list of endangered freshwater and brackish water fish, although the move is not legally binding.
“This does not mean people will become unable to eat eels, which are indispensable to Japan’s culinary culture,” Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told a news conference, explaining the government’s decision is aimed at raising public awareness about the extinction risk. “Relevant government ministries and agencies will go all out to protect eels.”
Although no restrictions will be introduced on the trade and fishing of eel, the government hopes to build momentum for preserving the species by including it on the ministry’s red list.
Eels are highly prized in Japan, especially as a source of energy during the sweltering summer months. But their numbers are running short due to overfishing and the degradation of their natural habitat from various resource development projects.
The annual domestic eel catch has sunk to as low as 200 tons in recent years, down from around 3,000 tons in the 1960s, data compiled by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry show.
Amid the tight supply at home, Japan currently imports about half of the eels it consumes from Taiwan, China and South Korea, among other overseas suppliers.
Meanwhile, the ministry removed the “kunimasu” freshwater salmon from its red list because the species, which was believed to have inhabited only Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture, was also found in Lake Saiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 2010.
The loach was newly included on the red list due to concern that crossbreeding with foreign species and other factors may drive it to extinction.