Monday, January 2, 2017

Japan Copes With the Disappearing Eel

[ed. Probably won't be ordering much unagi for a while.]

One hot evening last July, I visited the Michelin-starred unagi, or eel, restaurant Nodaiwa, which sits in a quiet basement beneath Tokyo’s glamorous Ginza shopping district. Next door is the world’s most famous sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, which was the subject of a documentary from 2012 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The restaurant is now so famous that a sign, written in English, sits outside its entrance, asking visitors not to take photographs.

In recent years, less benign developments have forced Nodaiwa to place a sign at its entrance as well. Whenever I visit, I count myself lucky to find the following message written on it, in Japanese: “Today we have natural Japanese eel.”

The restaurant started serving grilled eel out of a timber farmhouse, near the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, about two hundred years ago. And through five generations of continuous operation such a sign was unnecessary, even laughable, given the abundance of Japan’s native species of freshwater eel. But, in 2013, Japan’s government added Anguilla japonica to its official Red List of endangered fish, after researchers found that wild unagi populations had declined by about ninety per cent in the course of just three decades.

At Tsukiji, wholesale prices for farm-raised unagi imported from China immediately surged to a record high of around forty U.S. dollars per kilogram, and remained there for much of 2013. Prices for the wild-caught, “natural Japanese” eels served at upscale restaurants like Nodaiwa climbed even higher, by as much as fifty or sixty per cent.

But the government had been late to recognize the extent of the problem, which had already taken a toll on many famous restaurants specializing in kabayaki, a signature unagi preparation. In March, 2012, a year before the species was declared endangered, the beloved unagi restaurant Suekawa closed its doors, after sixty-five years of business, and it was followed a month later by the popular restaurant Yoshikawa. Then, in May of 2012, one of Japan’s best-loved kabayaki restaurants, called Benkei, closed its doors after more than six decades of serving eel in Tokyo’s historic “lower city.” The restaurants that survived were buying eels for ten times the price that they’d paid just eight years earlier, according to one vender at Tsukiji Fish Market. The family restaurant chain Hanaya decided to pull eel dishes from its summer menu.

For other types of seafood, farm-raised stocks remain relatively stable when wild catches decline. But unagi, which hatch at sea but mature in freshwater, cannot be effectively bred in captivity, so farm-raised stocks rely on young eels, known as glass eels, which are harvested at sea, then raised to maturity at eel farms in China, Korea, and Japan.

Overfishing of the glass eel is, undoubtedly, the source of the problem. Each year, Japanese people eat more than a hundred thousand tons of eel, which usually amounts to about seventy-five per cent of the total global catch. Roughly half of that annual eel consumption takes place during the summer months, when Japanese tradition holds that the nourishing unagi helps maintain one’s stamina against the withering heat. Eric Rath, a history professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in Japan’s culinary traditions, told me that this belief is “an idea that comes from the eighth-century ‘Collection of Myriad Leaves,’ the earliest collection of Japanese poetry and Japan’s most esteemed locus classicus for customs.” Grilled eel is so strongly identified with the midsummer months that it is the official food of a national holiday called the Day of the Ox.

The crisis brought on by diminishing unagi catches is, therefore, multilayered: an environmental crisis for the endangered species and its habitat, a financial crisis for the centuries-old unagi industry, and a cultural crisis for the Japanese public.

by Joshua Hunt, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Markus Kirchgessner /LAIF