Japanese Eel faces bleak future

Broiled eel is increasingly being priced out of the reach of many Japanese due to a severe shortage of quality eels. -- ST PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN
Broiled eel is increasingly being priced out of the reach of many Japanese due to a severe shortage of quality eels. -- ST PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN
For consumers on a budget, there's Yoshinoya's unadon (bowl of ricetopped with broiled eel) at 680 yen (S$8.60) a bowl. It costs more than twiceYoshinoya's signature gyudon (beef bowl) which is 280 yen (S$3.60), as shown inthe smaller poster. -- ST P
For consumers on a budget, there's Yoshinoya's unadon (bowl of ricetopped with broiled eel) at 680 yen (S$8.60) a bowl. It costs more than twiceYoshinoya's signature gyudon (beef bowl) which is 280 yen (S$3.60), as shown inthe smaller poster. -- ST PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN

Run, don’t walk, to your favourite “unagi” (eel) restaurant.

For very soon, Nihon Unagi broiled to fragrant perfection over glowing hot coals may become very difficult to find or, even if available, only affordable to the well-to-do.

Nihon Unagi, literally Japanese Eel, is the preferred kind consumed in Japan.

Eel is very much a part of Japan’s food culture.

Its praises have even been sung in the Manyoshu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry believed to have been compiled during the late 7th and 8th centuries.

But the future of Japanese Eel is bleak.

It is one of 19 known species of eel in the world and is mainly found in the rivers in the central part of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Because of the difficulty of breeding eels from their eggs, Japanese Eel is cultured locally from baby eels, or elvers, which are caught in the sea before they have a chance to swim upstream to the rivers.

The problem is that the annual catch of elvers in Japan has dropped to 5 per cent of what it was 50 years ago, sending prices soaring in recent years.

According to the Fisheries Agency, the price of elvers this year surged to 2.5 million yen (S$31,892.25) per kg, up 16 per cent over last year’s price and a stunning 15 times higher than 10 years ago.

The drought in Japanese elver catches is said to be the result of changes in ocean currents due to global warming, over-fishing, and infrastructural development around river mouths that destroys the natural habitat of the eel.

Eel farms have tried to make up for the shortfall in elvers by importing from China and Taiwan.

But the supply of elvers from abroad has not only also dropped precipitously, the weakening yen has also made eel imports more expensive.

In 2010, Japanese scientists announced that they had for the first time succeeded in breeding baby eels from their eggs.

But there are still many problems to be surmounted before baby eels can be produced in sufficient quantities to supply Japan’s eel farms.

These farms are the first to be threatened by the dire shortage of elvers.

Twenty-seven out of 100 eel farms in the Isshiki district of Nishio city, Aichi prefecture, an area famous for its high quality eels, have had to close this year.

Meanwhile, unable to absorb the extra cost of fresh eel, specialty eel restaurants have had to increase their prices, a move that spelt doom for many of them.

Ten years ago, there were 130 specialty eel restaurants in Tokyo. The number has dwindled to 96, most of the casualties being family-run shops.

One restaurant in Tokyo’s Kanda district was forced to close its doors in May after being in business for 104 years.

After it raised the price of its unajyu (rice topped with eel and served in a lacquer box) from 2,100 yen (S$26.80) to 3,000 yen (S$38.30), and also reduced the portion of the eel, “customers simply stopped coming”, its owner was quoted as saying by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily.

Of the some 65,000 tonnes of eel consumed in Japan each year, 99 per cent are cultured, one third of the latter on Japanese eel farms and the remainder on Chinese and Taiwanese farms. The 1 per cent of eels that are not cultured but caught in the wild are naturally highly prized.

At one well-known eel restaurant in Tokyo’s Higashi Azabu district, a little card placed on each table warns customers to “watch out for possible fish hooks in the eel”, a subtle hint that their product is not of the cultured variety.

Besides being a gourmet’s delight, eel also happens to be very nutritious as it is a rich source of protein and vitamins. In particular, the Japanese believe in eating eel during the enervating summer months to revitalise themselves.

The traditional eel-eating day in the summer is called “Doyo no ushi no hi” (literally, Midsummer Day of the Ox) which comes once or twice a year. This year, it falls on two days, July 22 and Aug 3.

Because of the high prices of locally cultured eel, many Japanese will have to make do with cheaper, imported eel from China and Taiwan.

This cheaper eel tends to be tougher and far less fragrant than Japanese Eel.

Beef bowl chain Yoshinoya charges 680 yen (S$8.60) for “unadon”, a bowl of rice topped with imported broiled eel. This, incidentally, is slightly more than twice as expensive as the chain’s signature “gyudon” (beef bowl).

Last year, the high price of eel deterred many housewives from serving it at home during the peak summer months, sending sales plummeting 30-50 per cent at many supermarkets.

To prevent a repeat this year, major supermarket chains are offering customers discounts on eel products if they order ahead of “Doyo no ushi no hi”.

At Aeon, Japan’s largest supermarket chain, customers pay 1,780 yen (S$22.60) for one packet of pre-ordered processed eel weighing 160 gm. The version found on its store shelves costs the same price but contains only 140 gm of eel.

In February this year, Japan’s Environment Ministry added Nihon Unagi to its “Red List” of endangered fish species, a move that eel farmers hope will spur its protection.

At the same time, however, the Washington Convention, an international framework for regulating endangered species, is said to be considering adding Nihon Unagi to its own Red List, a move that could put restrictions on the international trade in Japanese Eel, further driving up prices.

One solution is for Japanese eel farmers to move to non-native eels from other countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bicolor, a variety of eel native to the Philippines and which costs only one-tenth the price of Nihon Unagi, is already being imported and sold in Japan, though not on a wide scale. Bicolor eels are expected to be cultured in Japan in future.

wengkin@sph.com.sg