As is the case every year, large quantities of eels were consumed across Japan on the “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” (midsummer day of the ox) which fell on Saturday this year, even as concern over the declining catch and lack of transparency in cross-border trade raises more questions about preservation of the species.
Government data show that the consumption of eels peaks annually on that day as many people follow the custom of eating the popular seasonal delicacy — typically grilled with a teriyaki-like sauce — which reputedly helps the body withstand the scorching summer heat. That practice continues even as the cost of the prized delicacy keeps rising — the traded price at Tokyo’s central wholesale market more than tripled over the past 15 years — and the domestic catch of juvenile eels for cultivation falls to the lowest on record.
In 2014, the Japanese eel was placed on the International Union for Conservation for Nature list of species facing “a very high risk of extinction in the wild” due to factors such as overfishing and deteriorating habitat conditions. All parties involved, including consumers, need to stop and consider whether the present level of eel consumption is sustainable.
The annual domestic catch of juvenile eels, which stood around 50 tons in the late 1970s, has been on a long-term decline. During the latest season (from last November to May), the catch was a mere 3.7 tons — less than half the previous season and only 13 percent of the 27.5 tons caught in 2006, which was the largest catch on record since the Fisheries Agency started collecting the relevant data in 2003.
As a consequence, many of the juvenile eels used for domestic cultivation this season were imported, and imported juvenile eels — whose cross-border trade has incurred suspicions of smuggling and poaching due to its lack of transparency — plays a large part in consumption in Japan. In contrast to the poor domestic catch, juvenile eel imports reached 11.5 tons, the second-largest on record. About 75 percent of the juvenile eel placed in aquaculture ponds in Japan were reportedly imported from Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is not engaged in the farming of juvenile eels, leading experts and environmental groups to suspect that the eels were in fact smuggled from Taiwan — which prohibits the export of juvenile eels — via Hong Kong.
Authorities in the European Union also suspect that young European eels — whose export outside of the bloc is prohibited — are poached and smuggled in growing numbers and that many of the eels end up in the Japanese market after being raised in Chinese aquaculture ponds.
Experts warn that the lack of transparency in the catch and cross-border trade of juvenile eels makes it impossible to get an accurate estimate of the species’ stocks, which in turn makes it difficult to harvest them in a sustainable manner by setting appropriate caps on catches. Meanwhile, the consumption of eel is on the increase not only in Japan — the world’s largest market — but also in countries like China, the largest producer. Kenzo Kaifu, a Chuo University associate professor of conservation ecology, cautions that eel resources are in a critical state as consumption is expanding faster than the supply.
The agenda of an August meeting of parties to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna in Geneva — popularly known as the Washington Convention — is said to include measures to ensure the transparency and traceability in the cross-border trade in eels to preserve their stocks. An EU official in charge of environment and fisheries says the illegal poaching and smuggling of eels can be eradicated through cooperation with Japan and China, and by establishing a system that tracks the records of eel catches and distribution.
Since domestic consumption of eels concentrates in the month of July — and particularly on Doyo no Ushi no Hi — some of the eels prepared in large quantities for the busiest season have gone to waste with their shelf life expiring before they are sold to consumers. The Environment Ministry reportedly drew flak when it posted a message on its Twitter account urging people to eat the eels instead of letting them go to waste. It had to withdraw the message after it received comments charging that the ministry is contributing to the extinction of eels by promoting their consumption.
It’s not clear whether such a criticism reflects people’s growing awareness of the threats to the survival of the eels as a species. But the government, related industries and consumers alike should take the opportunity of the sweltering summer heat to think what can be done to ensure the sustainable consumption of a beloved seasonal delicacy.