Glass eels are usually caught between November and March, but so far this season there has been a record decline in numbers, and fishermen in major eel fishing countries like China and Japan have caught less than a ton. The prime season has just ended in mid-January, and this season’s haul has been a fraction of 2013’s historical low, leading to one eel farmer to say “baby eels are nowhere to be seen”.
Prices have more than trebled, and although grilled eel is a staple of Japanese cuisine, it may soon become something of a rarity. In fact, the Japanese consider the eel a delicacy and they even have a day dedicated to it called ‘Doyo no Ushi no Hi’. But the catch so far this season has been so poor that the restaurants are concerned that the special day may not even happen this summer.
Once caught, the glass eels are sold on to farmers, but the present shortage has created a steep rise in the price of matured eels, leading them to currently be traded between farmers and wholesalers at close to 3,600 yen per kilogram which is about 20% up on the price at the end of last year. There are still a couple of months of fishing left before the end of the season, but after such a poor start it is looking very unlikely that the shortfall can be made up, so consequently this year’s haul is expected to set a new low.
Degradation of fluvial and marine environments, together with long-term overfishing has led to a decline in parent eels, and the effects of the atmospheric phenomenon La Nina has also led to changes in marine currents and temperatures. Additionally, the journey undertaken by the glass eels may have been disrupted by the warm current that usually flows north along the Pacific coast of Japan deviating southward. The waters off Taiwan and China however have not been affected, indicating that the population must have fallen to extremely low levels.
“A series of unfortunate events” is how the poor catch has been described by Professor Shingo Kimura of the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Frontier Sciences.
The European eel has already been designated as an endangered species by the secretariat of the Conference of the Parties to the Washington Convention, a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. Professor Kimura feels the Japanese eel could be heading the same way.