A 35-year-old researcher who fears the Japanese eel may soon be extinct has produced a picture book to get children to see them not just as food but as a threatened species.

“Unagi no U-chan — Daiboken” (“The Adventure of a Japanese Eel called U-chan”) offers a glimpse into the fish’s life cycle, an existence whose secrets still are not fully known to science. It was written by Mari Kuroki, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo.

“Presenting scientifically accurate information with a limited (vocabulary) that is understandable to schoolchildren was even more challenging than writing a doctoral thesis,” said Kuroki, who earned her doctorate in eel research.

It took her about four years to complete the book.

“The ecology of Japanese eels is amazingly interesting, but many people in Japan apparently see them only on the dining table,” she said. “I would be happy if my book can help more people develop an interest in eels as a wild creature, even if only slightly.”

The book features a female eel born far to the south of Japan who swims up a Japanese river, living there until returning south a decade later to lay eggs.

Kuroki was born in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture. After graduating from Hokkaido University, she studied tropical eels at the University of Tokyo under Katsumi Tsukamoto, an eminent eel researcher who is now at Nihon University.

In June, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources included the Japanese eel on its red list of species at risk of extinction, citing reasons such as overfishing and destruction of habitat.

Kuroki has made field trips in the Pacific Ocean in search of eel eggs and larvae.

During a trip to Fiji, she caught an eel that was nearly 1 meter in length and narrowly avoided being bitten by it.

“Since there were only a few female researchers back then, I found it quite inconvenient and uncomfortable to be traveling for an extended period of time on a (male-dominated) boat,” she said. “But once I got off the boat, I soon felt the urge to go back.

“I am hoping to do more research on tropical eels as well,” she said.

“The Japanese eel should be a strong species and it isn’t so difficult to raise juvenile ones,” she said. “I believe that if restrictions (on eel catching) are tightened a bit, the eels would show resilience.”

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