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East Asia's Appetite for Eels Pushing Species to the Brink

In Japan, summer is the season of eel.

On the sweltering midsummer days between mid-July and early August, it's traditional to eat a plate of golden-brown broiled unagi kabayaki, or broiled eel. The popular dish is believed to help people stay healthy during the hot weather.

But the tradition is now at risk. Skyrocketing demand for glass eels, once considered a highbrow delicacy, is pushing fishermen to exhaust the population and causing prices to soar. A number of East Asian countries including Japan have proposed ideas on how to preserve the wild eel, but there are so far no concrete efforts underway to curb the trend.

Ida Tetsuji, a columnist from Nippon.com, a Japanese news website, described how the production of eels has been increased fourfold over recent decades to satisfy the increased eel consumption:

Domestic eel production in Japan held at about 40,000 tons a year through the mid-1980s. This was supplemented by imports from Taiwan, which ranged from about 25,000 tons to a high of around 40,000 tons. [...] In 2000 a record high of over 130,000 tons of eel products were imported from China and Taiwan, and domestic sales volume rose to almost 160,000 tons, also a record high. This was almost double the volume of sales 15 years earlier.

Specially cooked eels in Japan. Photo from ysishikawa.

Specially cooked eels in Japan. Photo from ysishikawa (CC: AT).

A common misconception is that glass eels can be farmed to keep up with the increased demand. However, eels are catadromous, meaning that part of their life circle is in freshwater and part in saltwater. Since there was no current method to reproduce the eel larvae, the fishermen need to catch the wild glass eels when they enter the river and travel upstream and farm them in ponds.

So without a way to replenish the eel population in the face of such demand, the number of these glass eels caught by fishermen in recent years continues to decrease. “Dogfamily”, an independent reporter in a Taiwanese citizen news portal, Newsmarket, reported [zh] the reality on March 18, 2013:

過去亞洲一年日本鰻苗捕獲量接近100噸,但近4年產量急遽下滑,2010-2012的產量遽降為41、35、26噸;以台灣為例,過去一年有20噸,但2010-2012僅剩4、4、2噸,今年(2013)約1.5噸。

The number of caught glass eels of Japanese eels has dropped dramatically in the recent four years from an average of 100 tons per year to 41, 35, 26 tons in 2010-2012. Take Taiwan for example, Taiwanese fishermen used to catch 20 tons of glass eels annually (e.g., 20 percent of the glass eels caught among the countries along the Kuroshio Current), but the total number dropped to 4, 4, 2 tons in 2010-2012. This year (2013), the number is around 1.5 tons.
Total eel production. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

Total eel production. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

The price of glass eels has soared as a result. Dogfamily [zh] pointed out:

幾年前,鰻苗1尾10元[…]今(2012)年的平均價達到180元/尾。以每公斤6000尾來換算,一公斤的鰻苗要價108萬,接近黃金的市價。即使價格如此驚人,但因為捕撈量嚴重不足,苗戶的收入還是下降。

Several years ago, one glass eel was sold for 10 Taiwan dollars [0.34 United States dollars] [...] This year (2012), one glass eel in average is sold for 108 Taiwan dollars [3.62 US dollars]. Since 6,000 glass eels are about one kilogram, one kilogram of glass eels is 1,080,000 Taiwan dollars (36,249 US dollars). This is close to the price of gold. Nevertheless, despite the amazing price, the fishermen’s income decreases because the amount of caught glass eels is so little.

The shortage in supply has resulted in smuggling activities, Dogfamily [zh] explained:

即使台灣經濟部已訂定3月31日前鰻苗禁止出口,但在日方出價高的誘惑力之下,苗商仍透過各種管道以走私的方式將苗輸出至日本。去年12月間,桃園機場就查獲以行李箱攜帶20,000萬尾鰻魚苗走私的案件。根據業者私下透露,1月15日前捕獲的鰻苗,幾乎是100%供應到日本。

Although the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taiwan has set up regulations to forbid the export of glass eels before March 31, the Taiwanese merchants still find ways to smuggle glass eels to Japan because the price provided by Japanese businessmen is so tempting. Last December, 20,000 glass eels were discovered to be smuggled in suitcases in Taoyuan International Airport. Based on private conversations with the Taiwanese merchants, almost 100 percent of the glass eels caught before January 15 were sold to Japan.

European eels have already been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in June 2007. Earlier on this year, the U.S had considered submitting a proposal for an international trade regulation on eel catches in CITES. At the same time, the Japanese Environment Ministry also designated the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction on its red list of endangered freshwater and brackish water fish in last February. However, the move is not legally binding.

In reaction to the pressure for eel preservation, a number of East Asian countries, including Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea have held several conferences and several preservation procedures have been proposed, including rehabilitation of the eels’ natural environment, restrictions on eel export, and release of adult eels in the rivers.

Production of different species of eels. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

Production of different species of eels. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

Nevertheless, with such a huge consumer market, eel merchants will continue to find new ways to make profit. In fact, the Japanese merchants have turned to African eels as an alternative, Dogfamily [zh] reported:

美國意圖將鰻魚列入貿易保護名單的舉動使得日本相當緊張,開始尋找替代的鰻魚來源,最近觸角伸向馬達加斯加的養殖業者,將購買非洲鰻來因應日本鰻價格節節升高以及美洲鰻前途未明的情況。

America’s intention to list eel in CITES makes Japan very nervous, and they have started to find an alternative source for eels. Recently, they contacted eel farmers in Madagascar and plan to buy African eels to avoid the soaring price of eels and prepare for the possible ban on American eels.

At the same time, international NGO, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) has also discovered that the Philippines has started exporting large amount of Japanese eels and Luzon eels, a newly discovered species, out of the country:

In July (2012), TRAFFIC surveys found almost 50 listings from businesses in the Philippines offering eel fry or glass eels for sale through online B2B platform Alibaba.com. Several reported they could supply for export hundreds of kilos of glass eels of a variety of eel species every month.

Amount of caught eels. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

Amount of caught eels. Figure from the TRAFFIC report written by Vicki Crook.

To break the demand-supply cycle, some Japanese have started consumer campaigns to reduce the consumption of eels. Ida Tetsuji on Nippon.com wrote:

Consumers and distributors of eels also bear considerable responsibility for the situation. As a result of the unsustainable inflow of large quantities of imports, eels, formerly considered a deluxe food, have turned into a cheap item sold in bulk through convenience stores and supermarkets […] We need to take this opportunity to transform the eel business from its low-profit, high-volume “quantity over quality” model back to a “quality over quantity” approach. Otherwise the stocks will become even more seriously depleted, and we are liable to sink into a descending spiral in which consumers tire of low-quality eels and stop buying them, causing the eel industry’s profits to decline further and the business as a whole to weaken.

Tirrano, a Japanese blogger from Decent Point, also believed [ja] that despite the gravity of the problem, the solution is rather easy:

どうしたらよいか、激減した原因の反対のことをすることなら簡単に始められそうです。つまり、不必要の多くのウナギを食べないこと、安いからといってウナギを食べないことです。日本の消費量がとてつもなく多すぎるのです。それを30年前ぐらいに激減させればいい。それには、スーパーなどの特売にある、それほどおいしくはない、ウナギを無理して食べないことです。

What to do to avoid the dramatic decrease of Japanese eels is actually easy. In short, we should not eat eels if not necessary, and we should not eat those cheap eels. Eel consumption in Japan is too high. If the amount of eels consumed can be reduced to what it was 30 years ago, conditions would be better. In other words, we should not eat eels only because there is a super sale on eels in the supermarket.

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