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News photo
A shopper looks at packages of grilled eel July 22 at a supermarket in
central Tokyo.
KYODO PHOTO


In recent years, imports of farmed eels from China have sharply increased, making eel cheaper and more a part of the daily diet. However, people in the industry say there has been a rapid fall in the eel population.
“Although the consumption of eel is increasing, the number of eels caught is decreasing rapidly. If things go on at this rate, resources will be exhausted, and eels will become a phantom fish,” said a fisheries official in Kagoshima Prefecture, a major source of eels.
More than 99 percent of the eels Japanese eat are farmed, but not in the true sense of the word. It is next to impossible to raise eels from eggs. Instead newborn eels, called glass eels, must be caught in the wild and raised in ponds.
In 2003, a group of researchers at the Natural Research Institute of Aquaculture in Mie Prefecture attracted international attention for being the first to successfully raise eels from eggs.
However, Hideki Tanaka, head of the group, said the success rate is extremely low, only 0.026 percent, and there is no prospect of commercializing the process in the near future.
So for now, the industry must depend on catching glass eels. However, that supply is quickly being drained.
Tanaka said the catch of natural glass eels is now only 10 percent of what it was during its peak and there is no sign of it improving.
Willem Dekker, an authority on eels at the Fisheries Research Institute in the Netherlands, said the situation in Japan is still better than it is in Europe. This year the number of eels in European rivers was only 5 percent of the peak period, making it the worst year on record.
The U.S. government is now considering designating eels as a species facing extinction due to the drastic fall in catch numbers.
Experts say the cause is overfishing and environmental destruction, including the construction of dams. Recent research at Leiden University in the Netherlands indicates that glass eels are very vulnerable to such harmful substances polychlorinated biphenyl – .

The decrease in the number of eels in Europe is believed to be strongly related to the huge consumption of eel in Japan. Large numbers of eels caught in Europe have been imported here through China since the late 1990s.

In addition, it was reported that, in 1997, China had nearly eight times as many eels in breeding ponds as Japan did. And much of that is sent to Japan. Due to the huge Chinese imports, eels are losing their image as a high-quality fish. In China, eels are boiled for export to Japan, where they are then sold at low prices.

Akiko Ishihara, an official of Traffic East Asia, Japan, a private organization monitoring the wildlife trade, said Japanese need to realize they consume nearly 70 percent of the eels caught worldwide.

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