Efforts must be made to protect traditional Japanese cuisine

To protect stocks of eel, which is used in traditional Japanese cuisine, it is important to steadily improve international resource management. Japan needs to lead discussions in this regard.

Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan held intergovernmental talks and agreed on measures to protect and manage the resources of Japanese eel, which is threatened with extinction.

The talks began in 2012, but from 2015, China did not take part. Japan persuaded China to return to the talks for the first time in eight years. As China has become a major consumer of Japanese eel on par with Japan, Beijing’s return to the table is a step forward.

Under the agreement, a 2014 deal capping the quantity of young eels that can be caught and reared in aquaculture ponds will remain in place. Japan’s annual cap is 21.7 tons and China’s is 36 tons.

However, the cap is not legally binding and there are no penalties. To ensure effectiveness, it is essential that each country and region voluntarily adhere strictly to the agreement.

The spawning area of Japanese eel is near the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 kilometers from Japan.

From there, young eels ride the Kuroshio Current to reach rivers in Japan and other parts of East Asia. Fishermen catch the about 6-centimeter-long juveniles that arrive, and fish farmers raise the young eels to adulthood for sale.

However, the domestic catch of young eels has plummeted to one-third of what it was 40 years ago. Overfishing and changes in the marine environment are believed to be factors behind the decrease.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature designated Japanese eel an endangered species in 2014. A situation must be avoided in which Japanese eel resources continue to dwindle and the species becomes subject to international trade regulations.

Many parts of the ecology of Japanese eel still remain a mystery. The size of eel stocks is also not fully understood. In order to protect the resource, it is important for each country and region to cooperate in scientifically analyzing data.

It has been reported that Europe will join the four participants in the intergovernmental talks to advance joint research. It is hoped that this will be useful for effective resource management.

For Japan to demonstrate its leadership, domestic monitoring is also essential. Permission from prefectural governors is required to catch young eels, and reporting of catches is also mandatory. However, in the 2021 fishing season, the total reported catch was 4.3 tons less than the quantity of eels that entered aquaculture ponds.

It is said that there are cases in which fishermen actually catch young eels, but do not report it, because the eels were poached or because they do not want others to know the size of their catch. Local governments and the police must strictly crack down on such cases to root out wrongdoing.

A national research institute is working on “complete aquaculture,” in which eggs are artificially hatched, but the cost is currently extremely high. It is hoped that efforts toward commercialization of the technology will continue.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 12, 2022)