Eels: Mass Consumption Threatens the Future of a Favorite Japanese Food

Economy Society

While Japanese consumers feast on cheap imported eels, stocks of the fish are shrinking fast. It is up to Japan to take proper measures to conserve this resource.

Eels are a popular food in Japan, especially in the summer, but this year supplies were short and prices high. The cause of this much-noted phenomenon was the poor catch of glass eels, the larval fish that are used for eel farming. One reason for the depletion of eel stocks is damage to river environments, but the main cause is the lack of measures to manage these resources, as a result of which they have been overfished. Japan accounts for more than 70% of the world’s total consumption of eels, and so a major share of the blame for the current situation falls on our country’s fishers, government agencies, and consumers.

Aquaculture Dependent on Natural Resources

Japan’s catches of both glass eels and mature eels have dropped sharply in recent decades. As of 1961 the annual catch of adult eels was close to 3,400 tons, but this figure has now fallen to around 200 tons. These “natural” eels account for less than 0.5% of total domestic consumption as measured in terms of mature fish, which amounts to about 56,000 tons a year. In other words, virtually all of the eel we eat is produced by aquaculture within Japan and in other countries.

The technology for eel breeding, however, is still far from making it possible to raise eels artificially from birth. Eel aquaculture in practice involves catching glass eels in the ocean, releasing them into ponds, and feeding them until they reach maturity. So all the eel we eat comes originally from natural resources. And the catch of glass eels has also plummeted—from over 230 tons in 1963 to under 10 tons annually since 2010. The situation has clearly become critical, and unless action is taken, there is a real danger that the entire species may head toward extinction.

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. These figures started changing from around 1987. One factor was the rise of Chinese farming of eels for export to Japan. Imports of processed eel products made using low-cost Chinese labor started to increase markedly. These imports reached 30,000 tons in 1988, double the previous year’s figure, and they continued to grow steadily in the following years. 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.

The Shift to a Low-Profit, Large-Volume Business Model

The surge in consumption of eels in Japan went hand in hand with a sharp drop in their price. Traditionally people had gone to restaurants specializing in eels to enjoy them in the form of kabayaki, fish broiled and dipped in teriyaki sauce; this was a relatively expensive item. But the increased consumption reflected a shift toward sales of eels in the form of box lunches at convenience stores and of ready-to-eat packages of kabayaki at supermarkets. Nowadays it is said that eel restaurants account for only about 30% of total consumption. Prices of these mass-market eel products are much lower than restaurant kabayaki, and eels have turned into a low-profit, large-volume item. This trend has been amplified by the shift of domestic eel producers toward manufacturing and sale of processed eels in response to the surge of packaged imports.

This sudden shift to a high-volume approach has exacerbated the already serious depletion of eel stocks in the wild. The catch of Japanese eels has declined further, and the large-scale imports of European eels via China have been halted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as the Washington Convention, which regulates international trade in endangered species.

Ineffective Countermeasures by the Fisheries Agency

Given the increasingly critical state of eel stocks, it is now clear that the pattern of high-volume consumption of eel sold at low profit margins cannot be sustained indefinitely. But we see no major change in the structure of sales, distribution, and consumption of this fish. The lack of change was evident this summer, when, even in the face of depleted resources and surging prices, convenience stores and supermarkets continued to encourage consumption by offering low-priced products in the peak demand period. Some retailers actually lowered their prices in dogged pursuit of the high-volume, low-margin model.

The lack of effective countermeasures from the government has exacerbated the problem. Even though eels are an important resource for Japan’s fisheries, there is virtually no reliable data on natural stocks and catches. Without such data it is impossible to determine appropriate levels of fishing, and in practice there is just about no management of this resource except by some prefectural authorities. The Fisheries Agency and other government bodies are greatly to blame for the current state of affairs, because they have ignored the voices of researchers, some of whom have long been calling for scientific studies of natural stocks and the introduction of limits on catches. The regulation of the international eel trade is also inadequate, and it is an open secret among those in the field that some of the cross-border transactions are of a shady nature.

At the end of June this year, in the face of the drastic decline in eel stocks and the surge in the price of glass eels, the Fisheries Agency finally adopted a set of emergency measures, restricting the fishing of mature eels on their way to spawn and encouraging efforts to protect glass eels swimming upriver. But the measures are not mandatory, and local government officials are generally skeptical of their effectiveness.

In mid-June officials from the Fisheries Agency visited China and held talks for the first time with counterparts from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. The actual discussions lasted only half a day. The Japanese had requested to inspect eel-farming facilities in China, but this request was not granted, and no further talks were scheduled. Late in July, in response to a call from the Japanese government, the authorities in China and Taiwan agreed to the establishment of a three-way cooperative framework for the conservation of eel resources, which will involve consideration of limits on catches, but given the lack of solid data, effective international cooperation is still a distant goal.

Top Priority: Domestic Conservation Measures

In order to achieve sustainable use of eel resources, what is most important is the implementation of rigorous conservation measures within Japan, along with steps to rectify the market. It is essential to sharply reduce the catches of glass eels, and it is also necessary to strengthen restraints on shady imports.

Unless Japan, the world’s top consumer of eels, takes proper steps domestically, we cannot hope to win understanding from other countries for calls to cooperate on the resource management front. And if shady international transactions continue, conservation efforts will have little effect. The management of eel resources cannot be achieved unless Japan, with the world’s biggest market for eels, takes the initiative to fulfill the responsibilities it has avoided up to now. In March this year the East Asia Eel Resource Consortium, a group chaired by Professor Tsukamoto Katsumi of the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute and including researchers and industry representatives from Japan, Taiwan, and China, held an emergency symposium that issued a statement concerning protection and conservation of the Japanese eel, including calls for limits on fishing of mature eels in rivers and coastal areas and for management of glass eel fishing at the national level so as to secure accurate statistics.

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. The current price of eels, at over ¥2,000 a kilogram, seems quite high by comparison with the figures of under ¥900 per kilo that were seen back when massive imports drove the price down. But if we consider that eels in the past often traded at over ¥1,800 a kilo, the current price level does not seem particularly exorbitant.

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. The stocks of eels might end up being depleted beyond recovery and the eel-fishing industry destroyed. Responsible action is required from eel fishers, farmers, processors, distributors, and above all from the Japanese consumers who have been focusing too narrowly on low prices.

(Originally written in Japanese on September 11, 2012.)

eel China Taiwan glass eels aquaculture kabayaki Fisheries Agency processed goods resource management overfishing