Tuesday was eel-eating day, when many in Japan treat themselves to the grilled delicacy —this year likely to make a smaller dent on the wallet with prices down.
Eel, typically prepared with sweet soy sauce and grilled, is enjoyed on set days following an old custom that says eating the dish on the midsummer Day of the Ox helps in coping with the heat. The Day of the Ox occurs several times a year, and during midsummer this year it fell on Tuesday with another occurrence on Aug. 6.
The domestic catch of juvenile eels rose early this year for the first time in three seasons, leading to a fall in their price for cultivation.
On Tuesday, people flocked to famous restaurants specializing in eel or bought the dish at grocery stores, with the Maruetsu supermarket chain selling one domestic offering for ¥1,680 in Tokyo, around 15 percent lower than last year.
“The price is still a bit high, but it’s a reward for the summer,” Mikiko Watanabe, a 36-year-old housewife, said while shopping.
People started to form a line earlier than usual at the Funaya eel restaurant in Osaka’s Ikuno Ward on Tuesday, as owner Norio Yamamoto offered bigger servings thanks to the fall in price.
“Usually, eel is beyond our budget, so it’s a big event for our family,” Yoshio Ihaya, 72, from Osaka’s Higashisumiyoshi Ward, said while buying two bento eel boxes from the restaurant for himself and his wife.
While the average consumer may regard eel as a midsummer luxury, conservationist might be concerned about other costs.
Amid heightened overfishing concerns, some local governments have introduced regulations to protect adult eels that have yet to spawn eggs.
According to the Fisheries Agency, the domestic catch of glass eels for cultivation from November 2016 to May increased 1.8 tons from the previous year to 15.4 tons, with wholesale prices coming to ¥1 million per kilogram, about 40 percent lower than the previous two seasons.
But the level of Japan’s catch has fallen significantly compared with the early 1980s, when it totaled around 30 tons per season.
In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated Japanese eels as endangered. Participating countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, also known as the Washington Convention, may decide to regulate transaction of the species at its meeting in 2019, industry observers said.
In Shizuoka Prefecture, a major eel cultivating area, the prefectural government announced earlier this month a total ban on eel fishing in its rivers from October to February, the period when adult eels journey back from rivers to the ocean for spawning.
Similar regulations have already been introduced in seven prefectures, with Miyazaki Prefecture pioneering the move in 2012.
But prefectural officials say it is too early to evaluate the effects of the regulations on the eel ecosystem, with the glass eel catch in Kagoshima wildly fluctuating over the past five years since the introduction of such a regulation in 2013.
Much of the eel ecosystem remains unknown, making it difficult to determine what steps are truly effective in protecting the endangered species.
A Fisheries Agency official said that it is still unclear what increases the risk of eel resource depletion, adding that overfishing, changes in marine currents and deterioration of their environment resulting from river revetment construction and other developments are some contributing causes.
“We’re in a state where everyone involved has to tackle the issue with an attitude of doing whatever they can in their capacity,” the official said.