Summer has finally kicked in and unagi, Japanese eel, starts filling up supermarket shelves and unagi-focused menus blossom all around Japan. However, consumers have to confront the fact that eels are slowly disappearing and have to start rethinking the way they consume.
Why Do the Japanese Love it So Much?
Japanese consume roughly 50,000 tons of eel per year and almost two-thirds of all eels caught in the world.
Unagi is a delicacy that Japanese people consume in summer since the Edo Period. It is packed with nutrients, such as vitamins, calcium, and iron, that people believe help fight natsubate, summer heat fatigue.
Why Is the Japanese Eel in Danger?
In reality, a large part of the population – both in Japan and abroad – doesn’t know that unagi is endangered.
The population of Japanese eel has consistently decreased since the 1970s and in 2014 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has officially listed anguilla japonica in the red list of endangered species: eels are threatened by overfishing and by the destruction of their natural habitat due to pollution and waste. IUCN urges the population to drastically cut down the consumption of eels and emphasizes the need to rebuild a favorable environment for them to survive and prosper.
Where Does the Japanese Eel Really Come From?
Young eels are fished in the wild and then bred until adulthood when they are finally sold.
The number of young eels available in nature in Japan has been steadily decreasing, causing a rise in prices of a dish that is already costly. At a specialized unagi restaurant, a staple dish such as unadon (unagi donburi) can cost around 3000 yen, making kabayaki-style unagi (grilled eel with a sweet soy sauce-based sauce) one of the most expensive dishes in Japanese cuisine.
Due to its scarcity in Japan, nowadays most of the unagi consumed within the country, even though it is labeled by supermarkets and retailers as Japanese eel, actually comes from China or Taiwan.
High prices and an appealing easy profit have also opened the way to illegal fishing which threatens the already unstable system that regulates the catching of eels, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to get out of.
What Can We Do About Japanese Eel?
But as people globally are becoming more and more aware of environmental issues, over-cultivation, overfishing, and different dietary lifestyles are becoming the norm, what can we do practically?
Eels are aquatic creatures considered to be very important for maintaining balance in the aquatic ecosystem of freshwater streams, lakes and rivers. Eels are carnivores, and therefore they become a necessary link in the food chain because they help to regulate the population of other animals.
The government has acknowledged their important role and has taken many steps to regulate the fishing and the breeding of eel. But as to the present day, WWF still lists Japanese, and also European and American Eel, as a product of unsustainable fishing and, unfortunately, no real solution to this problem is foreseeable in the next future, as a way to breed eels efficiently in captivity hasn’t been pioneered yet.
If you have ever tried unagi over a steamy bowl of rice, I understand that you might not be able to give it up just yet. But right now the biggest action we can take is to cut down the consumption of eel and opt for fish and seafood sourced through a sustainable fishing system. In Japanese supermarkets look for fish that is labeled with ASC and MSC stickers, that are applied to wild fish or seafood from fisheries that comply with a set of requirements for sustainable fishing.
Finally, it’s important to share information with friends and acquaintances to build awareness so that consumers can push companies and retailers to more controlled and stricter sourcing of the products they sell.
You don’t have to cut out completely unagi from your diet, but by staying informed and by making more conscious decisions every day as a consumer, we can avoid Japanese eel from disappearing forever.
This article was originally published Jul 7, 2021 and edited and republished July 2023.