PALABUHANRATU, INDONESIA – Japan is steeped in century-old rituals where people traditionally eat grilled freshwater eel on “doyo no ushi no hi,” the day customarily dedicated to eating eel.
Eel day fell on July 22 this year, but concern over dwindling stocks in Japan is growing, with other countries in the region reporting a similar trend. Continued demand for juvenile eel has led to an increase in the smuggling of glass eel from Indonesia to Japan and China, prompting Jakarta to toughen regulations.
In Japan, eel is commonly eaten in the summer but is also the main ingredient in several year-round dishes. But making the dishes is getting more expensive, given that the annual eel catch has recently sunk to about 200 tons from around 3,000 tons in the 1960s, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
The decline is a result of overfishing and habitat destruction, a trend the Environment Ministry has been trying to counteract. In February, it designated the fish as a species at risk of extinction on its nonbinding red list.
Japan consumes more than 70 percent of the global eel catch, with about half coming from China, South Korea and Taiwan. However, those sources have reported dwindling eel stocks as well, forcing Japan to turn to Indonesia, where freshwater eel are still abundant.
The freshwater eel is the only fish that starts its life cycle in the ocean and spends most of its adult life in fresh water, before returning to the ocean to spawn, migrating thousands of kilometers.
Indonesian eel farmers make huge profits by exporting glass eel. The high demand has also led to a profitable eel smuggling business in Indonesia.
Hisayasu Ishitani, president of Indonesian-Japanese eel farm PT Jawa Suisan, said the price of young glass eel in Indonesia is 2 million to 3 million rupiah (about $200 to $300) per kilogram, much cheaper than young Japanese eel, which can sell for 100 times more.
The fact that Japan is prepared to shell out for eel has conspired with weak law enforcement efforts in Indonesia to encourage more eel smuggling over the past few years.
Punishment for smuggling is minimal and the fish are usually confiscated, with the smugglers charged only with visa misuse. Most of them come from South Korea, China and Taiwan, according to Coco Kokarin Soetrisno, production director at Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
He said customs officials only randomly check luggage.
“From 20 packages, they only take samples, checking one of two,” Coco said, adding that the smugglers can choose the samples they want to submit to the officers.
The smugglers would often only show grouper or pet fish to the officials, while keeping the eel hidden away.
Ishitani said smuggling the fish is easy because corruption is so rampant among the customs and quarantine officers. According to officials, glass eel smuggling is widespread at airports in Bali, in the East Java provincial capital of Surabaya and on Batam Island, near Singapore.
“Based on the information from domestic farmers, who have good knowledge of the matter, about 70 percent of juvenile eel (caught by fishermen) are smuggled out of Indonesia annually,” Coco said.
Although it will be difficult to stop the smuggling of glass eel, the government is planning to introduce a regulation next year aimed at protecting the fish, Coco said.
Under the regulation, an eel farmer will be required to obtain a license to buy or sell eel, and the amount of juvenile eel that can be bought will also be regulated.
“If the farmers have reached a certain quota, they cannot buy more eel, so the fishers have no choice but to release the eel back into the rivers,” Coco said.
To ensure eel farmers abide by the law, they will be requested to join an association that reports back to the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
According to Coco, the Indonesian government is also seeking business ties with Japan and China, the two biggest markets for Indonesian eel exports.
“Why don’t Japanese and Chinese companies establish eel nurseries here in cooperation with local farms? Such a system will help better control possible overfishing and it would be beneficial for all parties,” Coco said.
The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries is also mulling cooperation with its Japanese counterpart to conserve the natural habitat of the fish in some parts of Indonesia, including riverbanks and lakes.
“This kind of conservation effort will conserve the river, help the people and protect the eels,” Coco said, stressing that such an action plan is inevitable in the long run.
“If such actions are not taken, I’m sure, there will be no more eels within 30 years from now,” he said.