The people of Japan are responsible for the consumption of 70 to 80 percent of all the eels in the world—up to 100,000 tons annually. In the dog days of late July and early August there are two days designated Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox), when it’s traditional to go out and scarf down some sweetly-sauced grilled eels. Legend has it that eating them cools you down and peps you up at the same time. Eels supply myth and tradition to Japan.
In the last couple of years reality hit hard. In 2013 the Japanese Ministry of the Environment listed unagi, the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica), as a species at risk of extinction. In June of 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed it on its Red List of Threatened Species.
Nearly 100 percent of eels consumed in Japan come from aquaculture. A big problem seems to be the overfishing of juvenile, or glass eels to stock inland eel farms. This disruption of their natural cycle may be one culprit in their decline.
Kenzo Kaifu, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at Chuo University and also an eel specialist and conservation activist, explains some of the problems eels are up against. “The aquaculture system in Japan is very developed. They can grow eels with very small mortality. It's a good part of the Japanese aquaculture system. But the biggest problem is how to get glass eels. For sustainable use, we have to develop management systems for glass eels. And now the Ministry of Agriculture reached an agreement with China, Taiwan, and Korea to make a cap for glass eels in aquaculture ponds. But the cap was not estimated by scientific data. It's just an agreement—a political agreement.“
Consumption of eels is another problem. Kenzo-san brings a more open viewpoint to the issue. “The social interest is focused on consumption ... or overconsumption. We don't know if it's over or not over, because we don't know the actual numbers and also their stock size. So we don't know if there's overfishing or not. Of course when we speak of the decline of their populations, we have to reduce consumption. And if overfishing is the main reason of their decline, we are happy. Because we can stop the fishing or we can reduce the catch if we agree to do that. Then next year, or five years from now, the population can recover.”
And like the European eel, the blocking of access to their natural habitats is a major concern. As he explains, “If the anthropogenic effect on the environment—rivers and coastal areas—is the most important reason, the situation is very sad. Because if we agree to restore nature, it takes time. And also, it's not only the eels' problem, it's a problem for every animal in rivers and coastal areas."
There are at least three defining issues around the sustainability of eels in Japan—disruption of their natural cycles; consumption, and access to their natural habitats. And there is also another—that wall that Japanese eels cannot scale on their own—politics.
Kenzo-san makes the point again, “I'm a researcher, so I say to the government, we have to research. We have to think about eels based on scientific data. But the government says that it's not cost effective. But I'm concerned that the biggest cost is not to use scientific data for political decisions. It's a symbol of nature ... also politics.”