"Unagi" may eventually disappear from our dinner tables unless we start serious and effective efforts to protect the depleted species immediately.
Prices of "kabayaki" grilled eel keep rising after three straight years of poor "shirasu unagi" or glass eel catches.
Japan accounts for around 70 percent of global eel consumption. For this reason, it has a responsibility to lead international efforts to protect the fish.
Given the characteristics of eels, international cooperation is essential for protecting the species.
Japanese eels lay eggs in areas in the Pacific some 3,000 kilometers off Japan.
Eel larvae drift in the surface waters of the Japan (Kuroshio) Current and then travel upstream in rivers in Japan, China and elsewhere, growing for several to a dozen or so years before returning to their spawning waters.
Stocks of Japanese eels have declined to around 10 percent of levels in the 1970s. In addition to reckless fishing, the deterioration of their main river habitats is blamed for the shrinking eel populations.
Climate change has also been cited as a factor behind the decline of eels. Experts believe the effects of climatic phenomena like El Nino, or an unusual warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific, changes the locations where eggs are laid, making it impossible for larvae to sail on the Japan Current. This prevents them from returning to East Asia.
There has been good progress in efforts to raise eels from eggs. But eel farming still has a long way to go before it can breed a sufficient number of eels at a commercially viable cost.
For the time being, commercial eel farming requires using natural glass eels.
This spring, the East Asia Eel Resource Consortium, which groups researchers and industry representatives from Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan, made a set of emergency recommendations.
The consortium argued that restricting eel fisheries is urgently needed. In particular, the group called for a temporary restriction of fishing of adult eels in their growth habitats to ensure that spawners can return to spawning areas.
That means human consumption should be restricted to farmed eels for the time being.
Natural eels account for only 0.1 percent of overall eel consumption in Japan. Farmed eels are as good as natural ones in taste.
Consumers should wait for the recovery of the eel population to enjoy natural eels.
Glass eel fishing is currently restricted through the establishment of a fishing period for each prefecture.
It is clearly necessary to establish a system for integrated national control on catches based on scientific data.
The consortium's emergency recommendations also included measures to preserve river environments.
The government has started talks on the issue with China and other countries.
The government should also work with the consortium, which has been prompting international cooperation for the protection of eels for over a decade.
In 2009, a team of researchers at the University of Tokyo harvested natural eel eggs in the sea for the first time.
But there are still many mysteries about the life of eels. We must not allow the species to become extinct without solving those mysteries.
In Europe, eels are already designated as an endangered species, and international trading in European eels is restricted under the Washington Convention.
The United States is poised to propose international restriction on fishing of not only the American eel but all other types of eel.
Such a step would have significant effects on eel consumption in Japan and other East Asian nations.
Japan needs to create a new eel fishing model based on scientific research that enables consumption while protecting international eel resources.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 27
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