The recent designation of the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature serves as a stark reminder that more controlled and responsible fishing and consumption are essential to preserve one of the nation's long-cherished food cultures.
Japan accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the world's eel consumption. The consumption of eels in this country increased rapidly from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, and at one point reached nearly 160,000 tons a year — roughly double the level of the mid-1980s. Although the annual consumption has since come down to around 30,000 tons today, overfishing to meet the expanded demand has depleted stocks of eels to levels where extinction of the species is feared.
The Switzerland-based IUCN's inclusion of the Japanese eel on the list of species at "a very high risk of extinction in the wild" is not legally binding although it may lead to future trade controls under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, commonly known as the Washington Convention. Still, we should take our cue and realize Japan's responsibility — as the world's largest consumer of eels — to take action to preserve the species.