Eel importers, already battered by a spike in prices due to poor catches, fear their businesses will take a further hit under a U.S. plan to regulate international trade to protect the fish.
Eel is coveted as a summer delicacy in Japan, and the country relies mainly on imports from China and Taiwan.
In April, the U.S. government announced in a federal register that it is considering listing American eel and all other eel species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Permits from exporting countries are required for commercial trade in fish listed in the appendix, including processed products as well as adult and young fish.
“If all (eel) species are regulated, eel will become a more expensive fish,” said an official at Zuisyou Food Co., which specializes in eel trading.
With eel prices already rising, Japanese importers are looking for cheaper species from the United States, Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa.
American eel is rarely eaten in Japan due to its poor taste, but Zuisyou Food began importing it last autumn because stocks of Japanese eel have declined sharply.
The U.S. fish, sold mainly to supermarkets, was deep-fried for tempura or broiled for toppings on rice soaked in hot tea.
Japanese eel imported from China and Taiwan cost 4,000 yen ($51) per kilogram. American eel costs less than half that price.
Zuisyou Food plans to continue importing U.S. eel if the prices stay around the same level.
“I feel as if our efforts have been spoiled (by the U.S. plan),” Zuisyou Food President Norihito Arakawa said. “I believe demand (for American eel) will increase as long as the prices are low.”
Towa Trading Co. is considering importing Philippine eel from a Chinese business partner who has started breeding the species for the Japanese market.
“We want to import (Philippine eel) if it achieves a passing grade in price and quality,” an official said. “But it could be covered by CITES regulations. This is not someone else’s problem.”
The United States will decide by autumn whether it will submit a proposal to a CITES meeting of signatory countries. The next meeting will be held in Thailand in March.
A revision to the appendix will require approval by at least two-thirds of the voting countries.
Nobutoshi Akao, a former Foreign Ministry official who chaired a CITES signatories meeting in Kyoto in 1992, said the listing of eel might eventually lead to a ban on commercial trade.
“Once a fish is listed in Appendix II, it could be put on the tougher Appendix I and commercial trade could be prohibited in principle,” Akao said.
European eel was listed in Appendix II in 2007, and European nations introduced a voluntary export ban in November. Japanese importers were hit by a rise in export prices from China, whose farmers used young European eel.
In 2010, the U.S. government gave up plans to list American eel and all other eel species in Appendix II due to opposition from domestic businesses.
But the government notification in the federal register said the need to protect American eel has heightened as demand has grown since the regulations on European eel were tightened.
The Fisheries Agency may ask the United States to limit the listing to American eel, sources said.
Stocks of European and American eel have shriveled to about 1 percent of their levels in the 1970s and 1980s, while stocks of Japanese eel have fallen to 20 percent, according to estimates.
Domestic eel accounted for less than 30 percent of the 73,000 tons of eel sold in the Japanese market in 2010. China and Taiwan were the main exporters.
The domestic catch of young eel, used for fish farming, is expected to remain below 10 tons in 2012 for the third consecutive year, compared with a peak of 232 tons in 1963, according to Fisheries Agency figures.
Neighboring countries have also suffered from a poor catch in recent years, pushing up prices.
According to the Finance Ministry’s trade statistics, the average price of young eel occasionally topped 2 million yen per kilogram this year, up from about 600,000 yen in 2009.
Prices of imported eel have risen in accordance with those of domestic produce.
The average price of live eel from China was 3,975 yen per kilogram between January and May this year, nearly three times as much as 1,390 yen in 2009, according to the Japan Eel Importers Association.
(This article was written by Hidefumi Nogami and Kazuyuki Kanai.)
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