Saving the Japanese eel

The recent designation of the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature serves as a stark reminder that more controlled and responsible fishing and consumption are essential to preserve one of the nation’s long-cherished food cultures.

Japan accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the world’s eel consumption. The consumption of eels in this country increased rapidly from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, and at one point reached nearly 160,000 tons a year — roughly double the level of the mid-1980s. Although the annual consumption has since come down to around 30,000 tons today, overfishing to meet the expanded demand has depleted stocks of eels to levels where extinction of the species is feared.

The Switzerland-based IUCN’s inclusion of the Japanese eel on the list of species at “a very high risk of extinction in the wild” is not legally binding although it may lead to future trade controls under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, commonly known as the Washington Convention. Still, we should take our cue and realize Japan’s responsibility — as the world’s largest consumer of eels — to take action to preserve the species.

Last year, the Environment Ministry designated the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction. Given that supply of eels caught in the wild are already scarce and pricey, most eels consumed in Japan are caught in the wild as juveniles and then raised on fish farms. But the catch of juvenile eels, though picking up this year, has plummeted more than 90 percent over the past 30 years — a clear indication that juvenile eel fishing is hardly sustainable.

The Fisheries Agency has called on eel fishing entities to shorten the period in which juvenile eels are caught each year. However, no actions with binding power have been taken to control the total catch. Binding measures will be needed to reduce the catch to sustainable levels where future recovery in the species’ wild stocks can be expected. Surveillance of trade in eels, both processed and unprocessed, will also need to be tightened, given that Japan imports juvenile eels from overseas and eels are farmed in other parts of Asia such as China, South Korea and Taiwan for export to Japan.

Eels have long had a special place in the Japanese diet, especially those served kabayaki grilled style in the summer. Fans savor the meat, which is rich in vitamins, and believe it will protect them from fatigue in hot weather.

But while eels used to be served mostly at specialized restaurants and eateries, they are now commonly sold at supermarkets as prepared food and in bento boxes at convenience stores. What was once a rather expensive seasonal delicacy is now easily available at affordable prices. But we must stop and think whether eels can survive consumption on such a massive scale.

The IUCN also cited destruction of the eels’ natural habitats and prevention of their migration due to river construction projects as main reasons for the species’ precipitous decline. The Environment Ministry says it plans to start researching the environment of their river habitats in Japan. However, such efforts are not expected to produce immediate results for recovery of eel stocks.

It is not just eels. The population of other fish species savored in the Japanese diet, including tuna, are being depleted due to overfishing and mass consumption. Whether we let our longtime favorite foods disappear from our menus or do something to save such species from extinction will depend on whether we harvest them in a sustainable manner.