Decline in eel production puts a popular treat at risk
The loss of one of their favorite dishes is concerning Chinese consumers with the news of a substantial decline in global eel production.
The prospect of no more unadon, a Japanese rice dish topped with grilled eel fillet, prompted Weibo user @毛十八 to post:
“I was stunned for a moment when I read that eel has been eaten to a status of endangered, soon to be extinct. Oh lord, I felt as an executioner whose participation caused a species to die out with a strong sense of guilt. Say no more, the human race, I’d rather the humans extinguish because homo sapiens have done so many bad things, now even the eels cannot survive on earth, I’m truly sorry.”
The post had been reposted 19,059 times and received 11,168 comments as of Wednesday, with lots of debate about the future of eels and the writer’s pessimistic perspective.
“I love unadon, I didn’t know that the eels are endangered now, but I don’t think one should say humans ought to die out because of eating the eels, though I will consider eating eels less frequently and give them the chance to recover the population,” said Shelly He, a fan of Japanese cuisine and lover of grilled eel.
Although the worry of eels extinguishing might be exaggerated, Japanese media have reported extremely low catches of elvers, or baby eels, this season. NHK World wrote that the industry is worried about a possible shortage of adult eels by the time the peak eating season of summer arrives.
The record-low catch is more extreme than in 2013, when Japan harvested 5.2 tons of elvers. In the current season, the total catch was less than 1 ton.
According to chinaeel.cn, an aquaculture portal focusing on eel cultivation and market, this season saw a new low. Catches on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are also low — only 1 percent compared to the same period last year.
Shunde in Guangdong Province is known as the hometown of eel in China. The Guangdong Eel Industry Association said that due to factors such as climate, the catch of elvers has decreased compared to 2017, and the price of both live and grilled eel is expected to go up later this year because of the shortage. The eel fisheries are coping with the decline through measures including stretching out the culture cycle and cultivating other aquatic products in their ponds to make a profit.
No more eels?
The global decline may lead to the disappearance of favorite eel dishes, but at the moment, eels can be easily found in supermarkets and restaurants, and the price hasn’t skyrocketed.
Hema supermarket, Alibaba’s new retail concept, has been selling fresh eels both in-store and for delivery since September last year. An eel weighing 450-550 grams is 58.8 yuan (US$9.16) and the one weighing over 700 grams is 168 yuan. The supermarket also sells a range of cooked eel products like sushi and rice dishes.
“In terms of eels and eel products, we can see the people in Shanghai love the fish very much,” according to Hema’s purchasing department. “Based on past experience, the price usually climbs in winter and drops in summer, overall it’s still within a reasonable range.”
Xiong Jiayan, head chef of Shanghai Japanese cuisine franchise Tsukiji Aosora Sandaime, commented that Japanese-style eel dishes are becoming more popular in China.
The restaurant sources two kinds of eels, moray eels, a marine species, and freshwater eels. The latter come mostly from eel farms in Jiangsu and Fujian provinces and appear on the menu as grilled eel fillet, unadon and sushi.
“More Chinese customers are loving eels, our branch in Moller Villa sells a large number of eel dishes, especially the business lunch sets,” said Xiong. “It’s not a tradition like in Japan, people just appreciate the taste, texture and nutritional value of eels.”
The best season to eat eels is between August and November. He also noted that the price of eels has gone up due to higher demand and scarcer supply.
“Overall the price increases by 10 to 15 percent every year,” said Xiong. “The price of eels is more stable in summer, as the production reduces in winter.”
Just like other aquatic products, there’s also the bumper and off-year cycles in eel farming, said the chef.
“Compaired with Japan, the eel supply in China is relatively stable, and not every region in the country loves the Japanese style eel dishes because they tend to be quite sweet, so they are more popular in southern provinces. China’s production can definitely supply the domestic market, but it’s a fact that the number of eels is decreasing year by year.”
Tsukiji Aosora Sandaime sells freshly grilled eel fillet that weighs 150 to 200 grams for 160 yuan, which is half of the fish. The price hasn’t gone up for years, as the restaurant copes with the increase in cost by introducing new dishes with adjusted prices.
Manzhong, a small Japanese restaurant opened on Yuyuan Road in early 2016 that serves only unaju, which is eel and rice served in square lacquer box, has marked up the price from 100 to 120 yuan in the spring of 2017.
Another unadon shop named Manmandong opened in the renovated Reel Kitchen sells the classic eel and rice meal set for 138 and 69 yuan, depending on the portion size. The restaurant displays live eels in a fish tank and they are freshly grilled to order.
If the global eel shortage situation continues, one should expect the price to rise accordingly in the future.
Nowadays eels are most commonly found in restaurants serving Japanese cuisine. China’s appetite for eel has also grown significantly in the past few years. But eel has been part of Chinese cuisine since ancient times. It’s highly nutritional and considered a remedy to replenish blood in Chinese tradition.
The elver, or baby eel and glass eel, is caught from the wild between November and March, with January the peak season. These tiny and translucent eels are then raised to adulthood.
Although most of the eels consumed in East Asia are cultured, the species cannot reproduce easily in captivity, so the industry is totally dependent on the capture of wild elvers.
In Japan, where roughly 70 percent of the world’s eels are consumed, people are accustomed to celebrate summer with unagi, the Japanese word for freshwater eel. The Japanese have a tradition of eating unagi for gaining strength to help fight off fatigue. The Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) became an endangered species on IUCN’s red list in 2014, as overfishing, habitat loss and changes in oceanic conditions have caused the species to decline in abundance.
Japan has been researching for ways to artificially hatch and rear eel larvae, an extremely difficult task as it’s almost impossible to feed eel hatchlings. In the 1990s, the first suitable feed was developed, and in 2002, larvae were reared up to the glass eel stage for the first time. So, eel farming technologies that don’t rely on natural resources are available, but not to the level of mass production.
Globally, eels are facing an uncertain future. The European eel (Anguilla Anguilla) has been a critically endangered species since 2014, as the Europeans not only consume adult eels, but also elvers in abundance. In Spain, the glass eels, known as angulas in Spanish, are traditionally eaten with garlic and oil.
According to IUCN, a concerning pattern of exploitation is already apparent — when one Anguilla species or population becomes over-exploited or fisheries restrictions are imposed, the industry moves to the next in order to fulfil demand.
Since 2017, the American eel (Anguilla rostrate) is also an endangered species on IUCN’s red list. In the United States, fishing for elvers is legal only in two places — in Maine where it’s permitted along the entire coast, and in South Carolina where it’s permitted in the Cooper River.
To protect the species, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set the first statewide quota on Maine’s annual elver harvest in 2014, and Maine implemented individual catch quotas for each licensed elver fisherman.
As eel prices continue to climb, the lucrative business is attracting new players. On January 23, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources issued 11 new licenses for elver fishing for the first time in five years through a lottery in which more than 3,000 Mainers submitted roughly 8,000 applications.
Overall rise in seafood price
Eels are not the only aquatic product facing a significant decline. The number of Pacific saury harvested by Japan in 2017 has dropped by 30 percent, a new low since 1969. The reasons behind the drop include overfishing and ocean current changes.
The Chinese market is consuming more and more seafood, both domestic and imported, and the public’s appetite is growing significantly, as people develop a taste for expensive and high-end seafood like king crabs and lobsters.
People shopping for seafood recently may have noticed a slight price increase in general, as market demand is often quite high before the Spring Festival holidays.
According to Hema, the price of aquatic products is also influenced by factors like weather conditions in their places of origin.
“For example, the powerful winter storm that hit the US East Coast recently has impacted cargo flights, so the price of dungeness crabs has increased by 15 to 30 percent in China.”
The price of sea bass is also rising, as 2017 was a bumper year and fewer fisheries cultured the fish and the recent drop in temperature also caused a decrease in production. In Zhuhai, the price of sea bass weighing between 600 to 625 grams has increased by 0.2 yuan per 500 grams.
Chef Xiong also said the price of silver cod has gone up significantly, as well as tuna, because there are fewer fish.
“In addition to the lower production, the price is influenced by lots of elements including transport. For example the volcanic eruptions in Iceland once caused the price of Norwegian salmon to climb rapidly because the fish couldn’t be transported elsewhere.”