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Monday, August 20, 2012

Unagi - A Slippery Eel In Decline

Perhaps my favorite Japanese food is eel - unagi eel (freshwater eel).

I eat it in the kabayaki style which involves the eel (it's a fish) split down the back or belly, gutted, boned, butterflied and then cut into four-inch long sections, skewered, dipped in a heavenly sweet soy sauce and then grilled.  It's then served in a bowl of steaming white Japanese rice.

If you listen to the Japanese, eating eel is good for the getting up of the old penis. I think people say that for any food which is long like a penis, but who knows... I've never had a problem, and I eat a lot of eel.

In fact, once a week, I eat eel sushi for lunch and I must admit to staring at the women at work a lot... though, come to think of it, I do that on days when I don't eat eel, too.

My love of eel, notwithstanding, I recently came across an article in the Japan Times (August 2, 2012) that discussed how eel eating seems to be on the decline in Japan.

Yikes! Could that mean that men aren't getting it up? Could it mean a decline in the birth rate in Japan? That's probably already happening, but let's not blame the lack of eel.

Restaurants in Japan used to serve wild eel a lot, but the costs started going up about 10 years ago, and the quality became hit and miss. About five years ago, Izumoya, a very well-known eel restaurant in Tokyo's Nihonbashi area stopped serving it. What? An eel restaurant not serving eel? They had been since 1946, but rest assured you can still get eel there - the farmed variety.

I have had farmed salmon... and let me tell you, its flavor is vastly less superior than the wild version. In Japan, I had a 20-lb farmed Rainbow Trout that my friend Dr. Michael Hutchison (Hi Michael!) gave me when she showed me around the facility in Nikko, Tochigi-ken, Japan. Tasty... but still not as flavorful as the wild fish.

So... of course... I am worried that thanks to costs, people are not getting as tasty an unagi as they should be getting.     

Japan consumes about 70 percent of the global eel catch.

All over Japan,  about 50 other eel restaurants have closed up shop - in 2012, alone! It's the high cost of the eel that is being blamed - that and the fact that sales are down owing to the reluctance of the Japanese consumer not wanting to pay higher prices.

The article notes that the according to the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, wholesale eel prices averaged ¥4,718 per kilogram in June 2012 - which is NOT even the peak season for eating eel. This price is nearly 40 per cent higher than it was in 2011.

Why have the prices increased so much? 

That's because it appears as though the number of wild adult and juvenile eels is shrinking.   

According to Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood advisory group, they have recommended not eating eel to preserve the population. 

The shrinking of the eel population is not new. It's been going on for the past 50 year - take for example the European eel which has seen a decline in its numbers by 80 per cent since the 1960s.
Japanese eel

How many of you are aware that in the United Kingdom 700 years ago, eel was so common a fish that it was used in pies sold on the cheap to whomever had a copper. In fact, a 2009 report noted that the eel population in the famous Thames River in London showed a drop off of 98 percent in the five years previous. The European eel and flounders were the first species to re-colonize the Thames after being considered "biologically dead" in the 1960s.

It can't be simply overfishing. There must be something else.

Wild eels live up to 22 years... and only spawn just before they die...

According to a Wikipedia entry, 90 per cent of freshwater eel consumed in the U.S. is farm-raised but is not bred in captivity. Rather young eels are collected from the wild and then raised in various enclosures.  Unfortunately, this also has a downside, as eels farmed in this manner live in en farmed in open net pens which allow parasites, waste products and diseases to flow directly back into wild eel habitat, further threatening wild populations. Wikipedia also notes that freshwater eels are carnivores (meat eaters) and are fed other wild-caught fish, the quality of which can affect current eel farming practices.

So... with eel stock down, nay, depleted, the US government is considering listing the American eels as an endangered species - which is already in effect in Europe.

This will further drive up the price of eel in Japan. 

Did you know?

U.S. eels are farmed in China and South Korea for shipment to Japan, which also imports them from other countries to supplement domestic supply.

Japan imported 323 kilograms of glass eels (juvenile eels)  from the US, Madagascar, the Philippines and Indonesia in the first five months of 2012, according to Japan's Finance Ministry. 

I'll be honest... that doesn't sound like a huge number. Consider, if you, will that in 1961, a peak year of eel catch in Japan, fishermen caught nearly 3,400 tons of mature eels, and has shrunk down to 200 tons in recent years. A total of 332 kg is small fry.

Reports from fishing industry officials in Japan say that the eel problem is due to supply and consumption. 

The Japan Times says: Eel stocks are being exhausted in the absence of effective regulations and oversight, as well as the lack of cross-border cooperation in managing stocks. The problem is being compounded on the demand side by changing consumption patterns in Japan, which consumes about 70 percent of the global eel catch.

Of all the eels consumed in Japan nowadays, only 0.5 percent are wild, with the rest - 99.5 per cent coming from farms in Japan and abroad. 

But even abroad, as pointed out, eel supply is down. 

The global catch of glass eels (juvenile eels) going to farms is less than 10 tons in 2010 and 2022 - which  is down from the high of 232 tons in 1963. That's a dramatic downswing, with the 2012 catch expected to be even less than last year. 

What's being done? Right now, the East Asia Eel Resource Consortium of China, South Korea and Japan have proposed that hunting of grown eels in rivers and coastal regions be restricted.

That's a great start, but who will uphold these restrictions?

Getting an eel fishing license is considered as easy as giving money away in Japan, and who will stop the eel poachers? I'm guessing that as the price of eel goes up, poachers will be out trying to make a buck.

The eel consortium also wants juvenile eel fishing to come under control of the State, so that they can measure eel populations.

This past June, Japan's Fisheries Agency has called for emergency measures to protect mature eels with eggs and to create access for glass eels to move upstream to lay eggs.

Again... who will enforce this? And how?  

All of this means trouble not only for the eel restaurants or the consumers like myself who love to eat eel, but for the sea creature itself. 

Are we overfishing the eel? The numbers taken in say no. Or... have we over-fished them these past 50 years causing the current decline in the population? Perhaps. Or is there something happening with their environment, either man-made or natural? That has yet to be determined. Of course, the frog population is also down. So too is the bee population. Globally.  
Regardless... there's probably been a reason why my eel sushi is at such a high price this past summer - and now I know. I've been willing to pay for it, but if the consumption of eel was no longer allowed, while I would miss it, I would survive. 

That means I believe we need to halt the supply. Re-educate the industries and people involved to hunt and process something else. I don't need to eat something that is on the endangered list... in fact, I fear I may have eaten my last eel as it is... except for that one in my freezer. It gave its life so I could have one last meal of a very tasty meat. 

I know.. I'm all over the place with this. I've never eaten an animal that could be considered an endangered species before. I sure don't want to be part of its extinction. 

Files by Andrew Joseph


  1. Bah! Eat all you want. When the price goes to $25 a plated for your eel lunch, you can bet that no one will be eating it and - Wallah! Population decline problem over! I eat the eel too but haven't felt that it helps my little man stand on end!

    1. Voila? Yeah. Supply and demand... Does unagi help you stand at attention? Naw... I even sucked back free samples of Viagra and never noticed a difference. Of course I was by myself at the time.
      Give me a pretty woman any day, and the unagi can go back to its slippery existence.

  2. thanks for sharing.