As people in Japan treated themselves to grilled eel on a traditional eel-eating day Friday, many had to dish out more cash amid soaring prices for the endangered delicacy.
The domestic catch of juvenile eels for cultivation dropped this season to the second-lowest level since records began being kept in 1982, leading to a rise in the wholesale price of grown eels by about 30 percent from a year ago.
On what is traditionally referred to as the Day of the Ox, which falls twice this year, on Friday and Aug. 1, many people in Japan eat eel, typically grilled with sweet soy sauce, to honor an old saying which promotes the consumption of the fish to help the body withstand the summer heat.
“I love eel and I always eat it on the Day of the Ox, even if it is a little more expensive than before,” 40-year-old Takanori Matsushima said while waiting in line at Kawatoyo, a popular eel restaurant near Naritasan Shinshoji temple in Chiba Prefecture, ahead of its 10 a.m. opening.
Amid heightened concern over the depletion of the population of Japanese eels, which were designated as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2014, debate over tradition versus conservation continues.
While stressing the significance of the eel-eating day in Japanese food culture, farm minister Ken Saito acknowledged the need to preserve resources.
“We need to deal with concerns over the depletion of (eel) resources,” Saito said. “This is a challenging issue. Japan needs to make efforts on this, and we also need to promote international cooperation.”
According to the Fisheries Agency, the domestic catch of glass eels for cultivation from November 2017 to May was 8.9 tons, down from last season’s 15.4 tons.
The average wholesale price of adult eels in May was ¥5,378 per kilogram, about 1.3 times that of the previous year, according to statistics released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market.
The Maruetsu supermarket chain was selling broiled domestic eel for ¥1,980 ($18) each in Tokyo, up from last summer’s ¥1,680 but around the same as in 2016.
“Thankfully we managed to secure good quality eels,” a salesperson at the supermarket said.
At restaurant chains Ootoya Gohan Dokoro and Yumean, where eel rice bowls were served for about ¥2,000 in the past, prices have been raised by about ¥500. The dish will be taken off the menu once the stores’ eel stock runs out.
“It remains uncertain if we will be able to continue to provide this dish in the future,” a spokesperson from Ootoya said. “We simply can’t swim against the tide of protecting marine resources.”