Japan marked its annual eel-eating day on Saturday, but market prices for the endangered fish remain high and supermarkets are giving growing prominence to alternatives.
The domestic catch of juvenile eels for cultivation fell this season to 3.7 tons, the lowest level since 2003 when comparable data became available, government data showed, while in the period from November to May Japan imported 11.5 tons of young eels, the second-highest amount on record.
On what is traditionally referred to as the “day of the ox,” many people in Japan eat eel, typically grilled with a teriyaki-like soy-based sauce, to honor an old saying that promotes consumption of the prized delicacy to help the body withstand the summer heat.
As eel is not cheap, supermarkets in Japan are selling more and more eel-like grilled products.
At a Tokyo outlet of retail giant Aeon Co, there were five different types of kabayaki grilled products on sale besides eel, such as those made from catfish and pork.
“We eat eel every year. But prices are going up. I want to try a different product this year,” a 42-year-old housewife said as she added a fillet of white fish grilled with kabayaki sauce to her shopping basket.
Sales of such alternatives have been rising. According to Aeon, turnover accounted for more than 10 percent of total products marketed for the annual eel-eating day in 2018, compared with 5 percent in 2016.
Kenzo Kaifu, a Chuo University associate professor of conservation ecology, said eel resources are in critical condition.
“Currently, consumption is outpacing the number of eels being born and is increasing,” Kaifu said. “The number will continue to fall if we don’t curb consumption and advance habitat protection.”
Japanese eels were designated as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2014, and the debate over tradition versus conservation continues.
Still, countless Japanese waited in line at famous eel restaurants across the country.
“Out of superstition, I come here to eat it each year,” Megumi Tokuda, a 46-year-old company employee, said with a smile at Kawatoyo, an eel restaurant with a history going back more than 100 years near Naritasan Shinshoji temple in Chiba Prefecture.
The restaurant’s owner, Kosumi Ito, said, “I want to do my best to cap prices so as to prevent people from turning away from eels.”
Eel dishes are also becoming popular in China and other countries. In recent years, concerns have been rising over poaching and smuggling.
All Japan’s recent imports of young eels were from Hong Kong, according to data from the Finance Ministry.
Given that Hong Kong does not engage in eel fishing, environment experts have raised questions over the eels’ origin and suspect that most of them could have been illegally brought from Taiwan and other parts of the world where eel exports are banned.
Improving the transparency and traceability of international transactions to preserve eel populations will be a topic of discussion at next month’s Washington Convention meeting in Switzerland.