Although the move is not legally binding, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment recently designated the Japanese eel as a species at risk of extinction and on its red list of endangered freshwater and brackish water fish.
According to the ministry, the species has declined by an alarming 90 percent over the last three generations. Yomiuiri Shumbun reported that the eel populations are 5 percent of what they were in the 1960s.
Unadon dishes at Japanese restaurants account for 70 percent of all eel dishes eaten in the country. Unagi (freshwater eel) has been consumed in Japan for thousands of years, and eaten the most during the hottest time of the year in Japan.
“Filleted and deboned unagi is commonly glaze-grilled, and it’s called unagi-no-kabayaki. It’s skewered and grilled with sweet basting sauce, and is popularly served on top of steamed rice. Vacuum-sealed unagi-no-kabayaki is often available at Asian grocery stores.”
At a news conference, Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara said, “This does not mean people will become unable to eat eels, which are indispensable to Japan’s culinary culture.” Ishihara explained the government’s decision is aimed at raising public awareness about the extinction risk.
“Relevant government ministries and agencies will go all out to protect eels.”
The Japan Times notes eels are highly prized in Japan, but their numbers are running short due to overfishing and the degradation of their natural habitat from various resource development projects.
“The annual domestic eel catch has sunk to as low as 200 tons in recent years, down from around 3,000 tons in the 1960s, data compiled by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry show.”
Because of the dwindling supply at home, Japan currently imports about half of the eels it consumes from Taiwan, China and South Korea, among other overseas suppliers.
On a brighter note, the ministry removed the “kunimasu” freshwater salmon from its red list because the species, which was believed to have inhabited only Lake Tazawa in Akita Prefecture, was also found in Lake Saiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 2010.