Red-list tag may keep eel off menus

Kyodo

As a major world conservation authority declares wild Japanese eel at risk of extinction, fishermen and restaurant operators fear the fish may disappear from the trade.

Eel farmers in Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures, Japan’s major eel regions, see the red-list declaration by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

“Times may get tougher for consumers — and for producers as well,” said Kenji Udono, 66, head of Shizuoka Prefecture’s eel farmers’ association.

But the immediate damage on the industry may be limited, he said.

“It’s regrettable, but it imposes no legal constraints on our business and at the moment it shouldn’t have any impact.”

The eel harvest in Aichi last year amounted to 3,140 tons, the second-largest in Japan after Kagoshima, which recorded 5,747 tons.

Hirokazu Kudo, 42, of the Shizuoka association, said listing eel as an endangered species may weaken the industry. Shizuoka is Japan’s the fourth-largest eel producer.

“If the situation doesn’t improve, we won’t be able to enjoy the taste of the Japanese eel anymore,” Kudo said.

Eel restaurants are also worried, saying it threatens a traditional ingredient of Japan’s diet, especially in summer.

“If nothing changes, it will bring an end to the consumption of eel as part of the food culture,” Yasuyuki Wakui, 73, president of Oedo K.K., which runs a long-standing eel eatery in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi.

Many eel fans think the meat is unusually rich in vitamins and say it protects them from fatigue on hot summer days.

Wakui said over half of all consumption hinges on mass-market products sold in supermarkets. He said restricting outlets where eel is sold might be one way to manage the crisis.

“Since stocks are depleted, we should encourage consumers to enjoy eels served at restaurants specializing in this kind of cuisine,” Wakui said.

“We have seen prices surge in recent years and have adopted some measures not to lose customers,” said Norio Yamamoto, 46, manager of “Funaya,” an eel specialist in the city of Osaka. “But this time it seems that we can’t avoid it.”