Nearly half of juvenile Japanese eels farmed in the country may have been illegally caught, according to a Kyodo News survey. The Japanese eel is an endangered species.
The survey, released Wednesday, found that 45.45 percent of young eels caught in Japan between November 2016 and April 2017 may have lacked prefectural authorization or were underreported.
Experts are calling for tighter resource management of the species, mainly found in East Asia, as they are designated as being at risk of extinction by the Environment Ministry and the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to deteriorating habitat conditions and overfishing.
According to the Fisheries Agency, 19.5 tons of juvenile eels were placed into aquaculture ponds in Japan between November and April. With 4.1 tons of young eels imported from Hong Kong in the same period, domestic catches amount to 15.4 tons.
But the amount of catches authorized by 24 prefectures totaled only 8.4 tons, according to the Kyodo News tally.
Similar discrepancies were seen in the period between November 2014 and October 2015 at 9.6 tons and between November 2015 and October 2016 at 5.9 tons.
Kenzo Kaifu, an associate professor of conservation ecology at Chuo University, said the gaps probably represent underreporting or poaching.
The Fisheries Agency believes fishermen often do not report the correct amount because they find reporting troublesome or want to keep lucrative areas secret from rivals.
As Hong Kong does not engage in eel fishing, some experts point to the possibility that young eels are smuggled into the region from Taiwan, which bans eel exports, before they are shipped from Hong Kong to Japan.
“If we leave underreporting or poaching unattended, we cannot grasp an accurate amount of resources and it would be difficult to use them in a sustainable manner,” Kaifu said, adding that there is a need to introduce a system of traceability.
But a Fisheries Agency official dismissed the need for such a system.
“We don’t see any problems in resource management because poached young eels are eventually placed into aquaculture ponds and the total amount will be reported later,” the official said.
Takehito Yoshida, an associate professor of ecology at the University of Tokyo, called on the authorities to take action.
“Underreporting and poaching not only concern resource management, but they also could undermine social trust in the whole eel industry,” Yoshida said.
As catches of Japanese eels have fallen sharply, Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea agreed in September 2014 to cut the volume of juvenile eels put into aquaculture ponds by 20 percent from the previous year.