The domestic catch of juvenile eels for cultivation dropped this season to 3.7 tons, the lowest level since comparable data became available in 2003, Fisheries Agency data released earlier this month showed.
In the period from November 2018 to May 2019, Japan imported 11.5 tons of young eels, the second-highest on record, according to the Finance Ministry’s trade statistics.
All of the imports came from Hong Kong, according to the data, which has raised suspicions about their origin since Hong Kong does not engage in eel fishing.
Industry observers and environmental conservation groups say most of the young eels Japan imported from Hong Kong could have been illegally brought over from Taiwan, which bans exports of the fish.
Imports from Hong Kong accounted for 75 percent of juvenile eels put into domestic aquaculture ponds in the period.
The figures were released as Japan was preparing for a spike in consumption Saturday, the midsummer day referred to as Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Day of the Ox).
Many Japanese eat eel, typically grilled with sweet soy sauce, on this day to honor an age-old belief that consuming the fish helps the body withstand the summer heat.
Enhancing the transparency and traceability of international transactions to preserve eel populations will be a topic of discussion at next month’s Washington Convention meeting in Geneva.
The agency said the young eel catch in the 2018-2019 period was “extremely poor.” It reached only 13 percent of the largest catch of 27.5 tons in the 2005-2006 season.
According to the agency, the previous record low was 5.2 tons in the 2012-2013 season.
Other countries, including China, have seen average catches this season, and it remains unclear why Japan is experiencing such historically low levels, they said.
According to European police authorities and other sources, poaching and smuggling are on the rise, with over 15 million young eels from the region seized since last fall. There is a possibility that many of them will make their way into the Japanese market after being smuggled and raised in China, the agency said.