Japan looks at alternatives after eel red listed

Published on
June 20, 2014

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on 12 June added the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) to its Red List of Threatened Species.

Japan’s Environment Ministry had already listed the eels as endangered in February of 2013, but the listing did not trigger any immediate protective actions. Earlier, in 2012, the capture of silver eels had been prohibited or restricted in three of Japan’s principal glass eel-fishing prefectures: Miyazaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.

The IUCN Red List is one of the world’s most comprehensive information sources on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. The organization has no legal authority, but because its determinations use a transparent process and are non-political, the list is widely recognized as being based on sound science.

International trade in endangered species is actually regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Convention). Any member state of the Convention can propose the addition of a species to the official list of endangered species (Appendix I for animals). If the proposal receives a two-thirds majority vote of member states, it is added. Although states can make reservations to the decision (basically opting out of enforcement), other states may punish this by blocking trade in related products.

The two lists — the Red List of Threatened Species and the CITES Appendices — are distinct, but IUCN red listing often leads to CITES listing.

Deliberations on adding Japanese eel to the CITES appendix are expected in about two years. In order to avoid CITES listing, Japan on 20 June announced a 20 percent reduction in the harvest of elvers, and will request the same action from China and Taiwan, which farm for the Japanese market. Eighty percent of eel products consumed in Japan are imported. However, because habitat loss and barriers to up- and down-stream migration remain as problems, this may be inadequate to prevent its listing.

Japanese involved in the eel trade see domestic closed-cycle breeding and substitution of other species as the most likely future options.

Japan’s National Research Institute of Aquaculture, a part the Fisheries Research Agency, succeeded in closed-cycle breeding in 2010. This may culminate in commercialization of the technology similar to that for bluefin tuna, but the cost is still prohibitive, and the methods unworkable on a large scale. Pressure on other eel species is the most likely scenario.

Largely due to Asian demand (farming in China for export to Japan), the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) was listed in Annex II of CITES, which comprises species that are not yet threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade is closely controlled. From 2009, exports outside of the European Union have been banned, but trade continues within the EU and between non-EU countries within its range. Eel management plans have been developed in EU since 2007 as required by EU Council regulation, but more than half of these plans have not reached their silver eel biomass escapement target of 40 percent. The IUCN goes further than CITES by listing the European eel as “critically endangered.”

American eel (Anguila rostrata) elvers (glass eels) are harvested on the East Coast, mostly in Maine, for export, but are very expensive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service reviewed the status of the American eel in 2007 and found that Endangered Species Act protection was not warranted. A petition based on new information has prompted a review of this decision that may result in an end to this source as well.

Conger eel, which do not migrate to rivers, are called “anago” in Japan (river eel is “unagi”). They lack the gelatinous fatty texture of unagi and are therefore considered an inadequate substitute for grilling, though they are eaten as a sushi topping, usually after steaming.

Many importers are looking at lesser-known river eel species from Southeast Asia. Some companies have been importing shortfin eel (Anguilla bicolor) from the Philippines and Indonesia. This species is acceptable in taste and texture to replace the Japanese eel. The IUCN lists it as “near threatened” but notes that this could quickly worsen if restrictions on the Japanese eel push demand to the shortfin eel.

The species has two populations, in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Conservation studies are sparse, but the Pacific population is considered at greater risk, as many online trading platforms offer glass eels from this area and the number of glass eels being exported is rising rapidly to meet demand.

Japan consumes approximately 70 percent of worldwide eel production, while China has taken the lead in eel aquaculture.

“Doyou-no ushi-no hi” (mid-summer day of the ox) is a traditional day for consuming eel in Japan, falling on 19 July this year. Traditional “kabayaki” eel restaurants are already closing due to high prices, but beef bowl shops, convenience stores and supermarkets still offer eel specials on the day.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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