The renowned Izumoya eel restaurant in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, which opened for business in 1946, stopped serving eels caught in the wild about five years ago because the costs became prohibitive and their quality unreliable.
Meanwhile, around 50 eel restaurants across Japan have closed so far this year as high eel prices curb customer demand and many others are in the red amid declining sales, according to an association of grilled eel dealers.
The Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market says wholesale eel prices averaged ¥4,718 per kilogram in June, just ahead of the peak midsummer season for eel consumption — roughly 40 percent higher than the previous year.
Prices have risen because of dwindling catches of both grown eels and juveniles, known as glass eels because they look transparent.
Concern over depleted stocks is so strong that the U.S. government is said to be considering restricting trade of American eels and other varieties by having them listed as an endangered species, as they are in Europe.
Such a move will almost certainly send prices in Japan surging even further.
U.S. eels are farmed in China and South Korea for shipment to Japan, which also imports them from other countries to supplement domestic supply.
The nation imported 323 kg of glass eels from the United States, Madagascar, the Philippines and Indonesia in the first five months of the year, according to statistics from the Finance Ministry.
Fishery industries officials point to problems in terms of both supply and consumption. Eel stocks are being exhausted in the absence of effective regulations and oversight, as well as the lack of cross-border cooperation in managing stocks. The problem is being compounded on the demand side by changing consumption patterns in Japan, which consumes about 70 percent of the global eel catch.
Fishermen caught nearly 3,400 tons of mature eels in the peak year of 1961, but the annual haul has plummeted to a mere 200 tons in recent years.
Eels caught in the wild now account for barely 0.5 percent of all that are consumed by Japanese, and almost all that reach the domestic market are provided by farms both at home and overseas.
However, eel farming is facing its own set of problems.
The global catch of glass eels for supply to farms dwindled to less than 10 tons in 2010 and 2011 — down from an estimated peak of around 232 tons in 1963 — and the haul is again projected to fall below this level this year.
Domestic eel fishing is regulated and fishermen are required to obtain a license issued by a prefectural governor. But industry experts say current oversight is hugely lacking.
“In reality, regulations are almost nonexistent because getting a license is easy and monitoring poachers is inadequate,” said one official in western Japan.
A researcher said, “There aren’t even reliable data available compiled by the state about such issues as how many glass eels arrive in waters around Japan and are caught annually.”
Against this backdrop, the East Asia Eel Resource Consortium, a body comprising fishing industry officials from Japan, China and South Korea, proposed in March that the hunting of grown eels in rivers and coastal regions be restricted.
The consortium also proposed that glass eel fishing be placed entirely under the control of the state to obtain accurate data on eel populations.
In late June, the farm ministry’s Fisheries Agency came up with a set of emergency measures to address dwindling eel stocks, calling for steps to protect mature eels with eggs and to create access for glass eels to move upstream to lay eggs.
But many local government officials question the effectiveness of these measures, since they are nonbinding.
Nor has much progress been made in fostering international cooperation regarding the management of eel stocks.
Fisheries Agency officials visited China in mid-June to hold the first-ever consultations over eel production with their counterparts at the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.
“Cooperation is essential with China, which has been increasing its catches of glass eels and production of farm eels,” a Japanese official said.
But substantive talks only lasted half a day and Japan’s request to visit Chinese eel farms was refused. No date has been set for a new round of meetings.
As for domestic consumption patterns, eels are no longer an expensive delicacy served in restaurants — grilled, cheap eel products are freely available in supermarkets and convenience stores.
“Eel growers started to prioritize supermarkets that purchase in volume, even though low retail prices mean profit margins are thin,” said an eel farmer in eastern Japan. “The volume sales business model has firmly taken root.”
Annual sales had remained at around 80,000 tons for years, but started rising in the late 1980s after cheap products started hitting the market. China also started farming eels targeting Japanese consumers around the same time.
Eel sales peaked at nearly 160,000 tons in 2000, with more than 130,000 tons imported from China and Taiwan.
Though eel production has since fallen as stocks have declined, nothing has changed in the way they are marketed.
“It’s obvious that eel stocks can no longer withstand thin-margin volume sales,” an eel restaurant manager warned.
“If things are left unattended, no time-honored restaurants specializing in eel will be able to survive.”