• The Associated Press

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Bluegill introduced from overseas have taken over Japanese lakes and rivers since the 1960s, wiping out native species and wrecking the ecosystem.

The culprit? None other than the Emperor himself.

In a rare expression of contrition, Emperor Akihito confessed this week to bringing the fish home in 1960 as a gift from the U.S. in hopes of cultivating them as food.

The Emperor didn’t beg for forgiveness or specifically say he was sorry, though he expressed regret about the extermination program triggered by the infestation.

“I brought back bluegill from the U.S. some 50 years ago and donated them to a Fisheries Agency research institute,” the Emperor said in a speech Sunday in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.

“In those days, we had high expectations of raising them for food, and I’m deeply troubled by how it turned out,” he said.

The descendants of the Emperor’s souvenir have turned into an ecological nuisance, forcing local officials to exterminate them and turn them into fertilizer and chicken feed.

They have even infested the moat around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

After the Emperor brought an unspecified number of the fish, the Fisheries Agency then raised and cultured the donation and gave 1,400 of them in 1963-1964 to officials for further cultivation in Lake Biwa.

The population exploded, peaking at 50 million in 2002. An extermination campaign has halved that number.

Infestation of foreign fish species, including bluegill and large-mouth bass, have become a national concern in recent years as they eat up native fish and other water creatures.

At Lake Biwa, the catch of local delicacies such as crucian carp has declined sharply since the foreign fish invasion began in the 1960s, local fisheries official Koichi Fujiwara said.

Officials initially tried to fight bass and bluegill through consumption, but it never caught on. A plan to market bluegill also failed because the fish did not grow as big as expected due to overcrowding.

“It’s unfortunate, because bluegill taste pretty good,” Fujiwara said. “We sometimes eat them fried.”

Officials at Lake Biwa now regularly catch and exterminate them for use as fertilizer or chicken feed. The effort costs as much as ¥200 million annually, Fujiwara said.

But officials weren’t holding any grudges against the Emperor.

“We appreciate the Emperor’s honest remarks,” he said. “We wish the central government would give us more funding for the extermination project.”

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