The Yomiuri ShimbunCatches of juvenile Japanese eels, known as glass eels, hit a record low of 3.7 tons this season, from last November until this April, according to the Fisheries Agency.
Ahead of Doyo no Ushi, a traditional eel-eating day that will fall on July 27 this year, the market price of juvenile eel has reached over ¥2 million per kilogram. Poaching and smuggling of juvenile eel — now called “white diamond” — are rampant.
¥2.19 mil. per kilogram
On June 28, two men were found guilty of illegally fishing glass eel in a river in Hamamatsu, and were sentenced at the Hamamatsu branch of the Shizuoka District Court. A judge said to the men, who included a company executive from Aichi Prefecture, “[The poaching of glass eel] may seriously affect the protection of fishery resources and impair the maintenance of fishery order.”
Earlier this year, eel poaching was revealed in Ibaraki, Okayama and Kochi prefectures and elsewhere.
Most Japanese eel on the market — 99 percent of the total — is farmed. The eels hatch from eggs near the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and as they grow, they are carried by the ocean current to the sea near Japan. There, they are caught by fish farming companies around river mouths. Each eel weighs about 0.2 grams initially. The companies raise them in farming ponds and ship them when they weigh about 200 to 250 grams each. This season’s catches of glass fish were below the record low of 5.2 tons in the 2013 season, November 2012 to April 2013.
As a result, the price of eel has risen. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the average price of adult fish in May was ¥5,179 per kilogram, twice that of 10 years ago when it was ¥2,529 per kilogram in May 2009. The market price of glass eel has also soared, being traded at around ¥2.19 million per kilogram.
In the eyes of the law, juvenile eel can only be caught by groups licensed by prefectural governments. Kenzo Kaifu, associate professor at Chuo University, pointed out that some poached young fish are traded at high prices through black market channels. He specializes in conservation ecology and is an expert on the distribution of eel.
“It may be used as a source of funds for gangs,” he added.
Hong Kong route
The shortage of glass eel is made up by imports. This season, 11.5 tons of glass eel have flowed in from overseas, accounting for 75 percent of the glass eel used for farming. It is said that influxes through illegal routes are also increasing.
Although Japan and Taiwan ban both the export and import of glass eel during the fishing season, there are cases in which Taiwanese catch the young fish carried by ocean currents and “smuggle” them to Japan via Hong Kong, according to sources.
“There is high demand for glass eels in Japan. Some transporters from Thailand and the Philippines take eels out of Taiwan as baggage and transport them to Japan via Hong Kong,” said an eel exporter from Taiwan.
The number of young Japanese eels has decreased since the 1960s due to poaching, deterioration of the river environment and changes in ocean currents. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated Japanese eels as an endangered species in 2014. In addition, parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention, may discuss the necessity of international trade regulations on the fish at future meetings.
Expecting ‘full cultivation’
While juvenile eel catches have reached a historically low level, Japanese research institutions and the eel industry are working to artificially hatch Japanese eels and raise them to maturity for commercialization.
An eel tasting event was held at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry building in late June. Shunsuke Sanda, head of a national association of kabayaki-style eel restaurants, checked the taste of eel that had been artificially hatched.
He smiled, saying, “There is no smell and the taste is the same as ever. If the price can be adjusted when glass eels cannot be caught, the price will not rise, making it more accessible to ordinary people.”
The Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency (FRA), a Yokohama-based research institute, succeeded in the full cultivation of eels in 2010 when it hatched eel eggs, raised them to maturity and got them to spawn. It is continuing its research, aiming at stable mass production.
In July last year, the agency sent about 300 artificially hatched glass eels to two fish farming companies in Kyushu, which raised them to market size in about 10 months, in the same way wild baby eel are raised.
“It is probably the first time in the world that artificially hatched eels have been raised to a quality suitable for ‘merchandise.’ If we can commercialize [the process], we can maybe replace wild eels with these ones,” said a Fisheries Agency official.