It’ll take more than swapping your eel for eggplants to save Japan’s unagi
Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Buffalo St.John), a traditional day to eat unagi (Japanese eel), maybe a long time ago, but there is no âoffâ season for eating eel in Japan.
The “natural” maturity of the eel is reached in the fall, which gives rise to aki–unagi: autumn eel. Popular channels such as Matsuya display the traditional âuâ of âunagiâ hiragana, shaped like a wiggling eel, on banners adorned with red maple leaves. The eel also appears in furusato nÅzei promotions, in which taxpayers can choose to pay taxes in their hometown, rather than where they actually live, in exchange for freebies – often luxury foods.
There are also places where unagi is open all year round. meibutsu (local specialty) – Narita, Chiba Prefecture, for example. Here, diners gather to watch wriggling unagi being slammed onto wooden blocks, pinned in place with a stake, and threaded head-to-tail in seconds. The brutal spice of the ceremony can be difficult to reconcile with the result: Delicious unajÅ« (grilled eel on rice, served in a lacquered box) or other kabayaki variants (threaded and grilled), almost always with lashings of tare sauce.
Easy marketing tactics and gastronomic draws aside, the hard truth is that the continued appetite for Japanese eels – it has hovered around 50,000 tonnes per year since 2015 – is having a negative effect on their numbers.
The number of wild eels in Japan has been declining rapidly since the 1970s. According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), official catches peaked at over 3,300 tonnes in 1961, but by 2020, they had fallen to just 65 tonnes; in 2014, the Japanese eel was declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). To fill the gap, the country turned to farmed Japanese eel (16,887 tonnes in 2020) and mainly American and European eel imports (34,343 tonnes), putting additional pressure on global stocks. . American and European eels are classified as Endangered and Critically Endangered, respectively.
Despite government initiatives to improve the stock, due to the prevalence of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – which undermines conservation efforts – and poaching of juvenile eels, the true sustainability status of the Japanese eel is unknown. For everyone involved, this is a frustratingly obscure industry.
Satoshi Maekawa, director of the marine fisheries group at WWF Japan, explains that the decline in the number of unagi is due to three reasons: changes in the marine environment; excessive fishing; and environmental changes in nurseries such as rivers and coastal areas. Overfishing leads to waste: According to a survey by Greenpeace Japan, 18 major Japanese retailers rejected a total of 2.7 tonnes of unsold kabayaki eels in 2017.
âGiven the traditional importance of the eel to Japan, it is undoubtedly difficult to change consumer preferences for the eel,â says Emerson Brown, speaking on behalf of the Seafood Advisory Group. sustainable, Seafood Watch (SFW).
Citing a recently updated SFW report, Brown also explains that “various sources indicate that the general public in Japan is still largely unaware of the conservation issues surrounding eels.”
For Maekawa, raising awareness about sustainability is a way to start thinking about the future of unagi, citing the media as part of the problem.
âSince excessive consumption (of eels) promotes IUU fishing and is seen as one of the main factors in reducing resources, we believe that the large retailers who are expected to sell a large quantity of eels are responsible for the conservation of eels, âhe says.
One potential solution for the future is to further improve eel habitats – Japan’s Pacific coast is full of creeks and estuaries that allow adult eels to thrive. MAFF has proposed a number of ways to achieve this.
As well as the installation of gyod (fish passes) and the regeneration of Magic wand – pond-like connections to rivers that serve as nurseries for fish – construction of ishikura is also something that could help unagi numbers bounce back. These piles of stones, arranged like artificial reefs, provide young eels with a place to congregate, feed and seek shelter, and can be easily monitored by regular surveys.
In addition, since July, MAFF has sought to curb the capture of unagi in major eel-producing prefectures, calling for a âban or abstainâ from capturing eels between (usually) October to March, the spawning season of Japanese eels.
Another government initiative is the lifting of the export ban on glass eels, the name given to the translucent intermediate stage of their life cycle; this is something that could help speed up transparency in the eel trade.
Beyond promoting the health of eel populations, experts also hope consumers can be persuaded to eat unagi alternatives to reduce demand on endangered species.
â(Although) kabayaki is sort of synonymous with unagi, it’s also a technique used to cook a bunch of other types of fish – saba (mackerel), sanma (Pacific saury), iwashi (sardines), etc. Explains David Howell, professor of Japanese history at Harvard University. âDuring the Edo period (1603-1868), varieties of kabayaki other than eels were popular, especially one year ago (usually white-spotted conger eel), dojo (pond loach) and other similar fish.
Once grilled and brushed with tare, anago – typically used for tempura for its relative lightness – would be difficult for anyone except Unagi aficionados to distinguish from the “real” thing. The online supermarket Oisix Ra Daichi has gone even further, moving from the aquatic world to the agricultural world with its nasu (eggplant) kabayaki meal kit.
Oisix public relations staff Yukiko Maruo believes that by offering sustainable alternatives, the supermarket can put the subject of eel sustainability on the proverbial table. âI hope people will be aware of the current situation surrounding the eel and support nature conservation and restoration so that their food culture is not lost,â said Maruo.
In Singapore, the aptly named vegetarian restaurant Herbivore takes the eco-unagi game to the next level with its tofu unagi. Formed into eel-shaped fillets, grilled with charcoal-scented aplomb and brushed with tare, it’s not just the look but the luscious texture and taste of this faux-unagi that has the power. floor. A restaurant representative confirms that this is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, although he cannot reveal too much about the “secret recipe.”
âWe just want to emulate the real (thing) to introduce people to vegetarian (food),â the rep said. “We’re just trying to do as much as possible to spread fewer killings in every way.”
Whether through vegetarian or other alternatives, reducing the consumption of eels is one thing, Maekawa explains, but the other is “to eradicate IUU fishing”.
The industry is slowly adjusting in this regard. Retail giant Aeon aims to sell “100% traceable eel” by 2023, while promoting the development of kabayaki that uses ingredients other than unagi. This sets a good precedent: if more kabayaki isn’t eel, and if an eel consumed is traceable, it at least in part helps achieve a more sustainable future for unagi and preserves a culinary tradition.
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