Sat, Apr 14, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Japan faces record-low eel catch, renewing stock fears

AFP, TOKYO

Japan is on track for a record low catch of baby eels this year, renewing fears about declining stocks of the endangered fish, a favored summer delicacy for Japanese.

At the end of last month, Japan had 8.8 tonnes of baby Anguilla japonica in culture ponds, including imports from Taiwan, China and South Korea, according to a preliminary tally by the Japanese Fisheries Agency.

That is a plunge from more than 18 tonnes logged in the same period over the past two years.

The tally refers to baby eels caught in Japan, as well as those caught elsewhere in Asia and imported to Japan.

The fish are usually caught in the wild and sold to farmers, who raise them until they are big enough for culinary use.

The fishing season that began in December last year is to end late this month, and Japan’s volume is on track to fall to less than the record-low season-end figure of 12.6 tonnes it hit in 2013.

Eels, known as unagi in Japanese, are a prized summer delicacy and demand for the fish is high across Asia.

In addition to overfishing, experts have said river dams, pollution and the draining of wetlands, as well as oceanic changes and parasites might be playing a role in declining stocks.

The agency strongly rejected the suggestion that overfishing was endangering stocks.

“Annual catches are largely swayed by how ocean currents move... ‘The haul halved’ does not mean the stock resource halved,” agency official Tatsuya Nakaoku told reporters.

Environmentalists have regularly sounded the alarm on the status of A. japonica, with the fish on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “endangered” list.

“We fear further depletion in the stock,” said Hiromi Shiraishi at Traffic, a non-governmental group focused on the trade of wild animals.

“In addition, a bigger problem is that we think the current resource control method cannot respond sufficiently to the decreasing stock,” she told reporters.

She said that the cap on eels in Japanese farming ponds is fixed at 21.7 tonnes, unlike that for tuna, whose quota decreases with signs of stock depletion.

Eels spawn near the Mariana Islands in the Pacific and the babies travel thousands of kilometers toward East Asia in ocean currents.

Their spawning process remains a mystery and efforts to breed them in captivity for commercial purposes have been unsuccessful.

Baby eels are cultivated in ponds. The peak unagi season for Japan is summertime.

Many Japanese believe the eels, served barbecued and basted in a thick sauce of sake, soy sauce and sugar, provide much-needed stamina during the energy-sapping heat and humidity of the summer.

Prices for the dish have been on the rise over the past few years, and this season’s low catch will only push costs up further, Japan Eel Importers Association head Takashi Moriyama said.

Even with imports of adult or cooked eels to boost supply, “prices will rise inevitably,” he told reporters.

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