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Catch of juvenile Japanese eels hits record low, sparks calls for preservation

Japanese eels are prepared for shipment in Nishi Ward, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on July 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Igarashi)

TOKYO -- The number of juvenile Japanese eels caught in the latest fishing season marked just 3.7 metric tons, the lowest amount since statistics started to be kept in 1957, according to the Fisheries Agency.

Eels are a popular food item in Japan, especially in summer, and almost all of them sent to market are farmed from transparent juvenile eels, called glass eels, caught in the wild.

Glass eels are fished in coastal areas of Japan from around December to April under the permission of prefectural governments. The catch was 232 metric tons in 1963, including larger juvenile eels and ones that have become pigmented, but sharply decreased to around 20 metric tons in the 1980s when the consumption of eels began increasing. The number dropped to less than 10 metric tons for the first time in 2010 at 9.2 metric tons and stood at 5.2 metric tons in 2013.

Kenzo Kaifu, associate professor of Chuo University, who specializes in conservation ecology, commented on the all-time low catch, "Although I can't judge only by the catch in Japan as Japanese eels also inhabit areas including China and Taiwan, when considering all the factors involved, it can be presumed that the number of eels is decreasing."

Kaifu added, "I predict that the decline will continue as it cannot be said that fisheries management and the recovery of their habitat, which are necessary to stop the trend, have improved."

A staff member of the conservation group WWF Japan's department organizing its projects said, "I think the number hit a record low because the national government and other authorities didn't take specific measures, though the catch has been gradually decreasing. Catch levels should be controlled through a unified framework among all East Asian countries, the habitats for Japanese eels."

On the other hand, an official of the Fisheries Agency's Fish Ranching and Aquaculture Division, which controls catch levels, explained, "The amount of fish caught varies every season and we believe the result (the all-time low) is in the range of the variation. We want to control fishing so we can sustainably use glass eels as marine resources."

(Japanese original by Takeyuki Sato and Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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