Eel shortage leads Japan university to develop substitute

A global shortage of eel is being felt most acutely in Asia, but creative chefs at a Japanese university have devised a possible alternative.

Kinki University, commonly called “Kindai” and located in Higashiosaka, Osaka, is test-marketing catfish as an eel substitute in a new market.

Catfish, covered with kabayaki sauce and grilled, has been sold for JPY 2,200 (USD 20.00, EUR 17.85) since last year at the university’s restaurants in the Ginza area of Tokyo and the Umeda area of Osaka, alongside its popular “Kindai maguro,” or closed-cycle bluefin tuna. This year, the college is test marketing the dish at airports to passengers of low-cost carriers that do not provide in-flight meals. The passengers can take the lunchbox style meals on board with them.

The flavor of the catfish comes not only from the sauce; it is a result of both a breeding program and experiments in diet to eliminate the distinctive smell of catfish. The developed feed is based on commercial aquaculture feed for saltwater fish. Besides working on substitutes, the college is also working on a closed-cycle breeding program for Japanese eel, but the resulting product is still too expensive to be commercialized.

Supplies of juvenile “glass eels” to Japan have shifted since 2007, when Taiwan banned exports during the harvesting period of 1 November to 1 April. South Korea and Japan also have similar export bans, leaving China (via Hong Kong) as the main international source for the Japanese eel. Japan imported 1,657 kg from Hong Kong in November and December of 2015, and 4,364 kg in January and February of this year, according to Finance Ministry foreign trade data. That’s about 40 percent of Japan’s total glass eel use in the period.

Eel is a popular summer dish in Japan, especially on the traditional “midsummer day of the ox,” which falls on 30 July this year, but pollution, over-harvesting and dams blocking movement up and down rivers have greatly reduced eel stocks. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) to its “red list” of endangered species in June of 2014.

In September the same year, Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan agreed to reduce the amount of glass eel put into aquaculture ponds by 20 percent from the previous year. Japan’s limit was set at 21.6 metric tons in the fishing year ending October 2015, but it actually used only 18.3 MT due to poor catches.

Though groundbreaking as the first such international treaty to control the scale of eel farming, the limits are voluntary and not legally binding. Efforts in February of last year to conclude a formal treaty for eel stock management failed when China balked, increasing the possibility that the Japanese eel will be added to the list of species for which commercial trade is restricted, at a meeting of signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), better known as the Washington Convention. The meeting is planned to take place in South Africa in late September 2016.

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) already has trade restrictions placed on it, though trade within the European Union is still allowed. It is listed in Appendix II (for species not necessarily vulnerable to extinction, but which may face it should trade not incur strict regulation). At this level, the European eels might be exported if scientists can submit a “non-detrimental” finding, showing that limited exports would not harm the population, but the stock has not yet recovered enough for such a finding to be issued.


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