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Japanese delicacy matsutake mushrooms added to IUCN Red List of at-risk species

Matsutake mushrooms (Mainichi/Chikayoshi Kiyama)

TOKYO -- Matsutake mushrooms, a delicacy of the traditional Japanese table, have been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of species threatened with extinction.

The latest Red List was released on July 9.

Also added to the list was the coconut crab, used in the cuisine of Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. Both species were labeled as "vulnerable," three levels down from "extinct in the wild" and the least severe of the at-risk categories (vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered). Meanwhile, the status of the Japanese eel, listed as "endangered" in 2014, was not revised following a re-evaluation in 2018, suggesting it is not closer to extinction.

Matsutake mushrooms are listed as "near-threatened" on the Japanese Environment Ministry's own Red List. According to the IUCN, the mushroom's natural environments in Japan, China and South Korea are in steep decline. In Japan, it has been badly impacted by disease affecting the Japanese red pine -- with which the fungus lives in symbiosis -- and changes in forest management practices.

Matsutake grow and draw sustenance from the red pine's roots, and no one has yet succeeded in farming the mushrooms. According to the Nagano prefectural forestry research center in central Japan, infections caused by pinewood nematodes that leech off pine bark beetles are causing increasing numbers of red pines to wilt, while at the same time the once-common practice of collecting firewood from mountain forests is withering, meaning the forests are no longer tended. As a result, matsutake has almost disappeared from parts of western Japan like Hiroshima and Kyoto prefectures where the fungi were once abundant.

Climate change may be increasing pine bark beetles' natural range.

Akiyoshi Yamada, an associate professor at Shinshu University's Faculty of Agriculture, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Matsutake will grow back even if picked, so the key isn't to restrict harvesting them, but mountain environment management."

The coconut crab, meanwhile, makes its home among the limestone rocks of Okinawa, the Ogasawara islands, and other tropical and subtropical environments, and is listed as "threatened II" -- one slot below endangered -- on the Environment Ministry's Red List. The primary cause for the crustacean's decline is overfishing for food. According to the Okinawa Churashima Foundation, the excessive fishing was spurred by demand from the tourism sector, itself fueled by the crab being featured on TV and other media.

The Japanese eel, meanwhile, has seen its population drop by at least 50% in the past 24 years, or three generations. However, it was judged that numbers have not fallen by the 80% necessary for it to be categorized as "critically endangered." The causes listed for its endangered status include habitat destruction and overfishing. However, Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan all began placing upper limits on takes of young eel in 2014 -- a move praised by IUCN.

(Japanese original by Mayumi Nobuta, Science & Environment News Department)

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