By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO - A revered tradition during Japan's hot and humid summer is eating
broiled eel, a dish believed to induce energy. But this year, the item has been
elusive on menus following a decision by the European Union to slash eel
Facing stock depletion, Europe is considering a move to have the trade in eels
restricted under the Washington Convention that protects endangered species in
European exports, mostly juvenile eel caught off the coasts of France and Spain
and then dispatched to countries such as China for cultivation, account for
between 50% to 70% of Japanese consumption, now around 100,000 tons per year.
The Japanese media, quoting data from Europe, say recent annual catches have
been less than 200 tons. Some estimates indicate that stocks have fallen to
about 1% of those available in the 1970s.
Catches in Japan, despite its eel-eating tradition, constitute only about 20%
of domestic consumption. Catches of young eels in Japanese waters have plunged
to around 20 tons to 30 tons - about one-tenth the figure in the 1970s, mostly
due to coastal destruction.
Yoko Tomiyama, spokeswoman for the Japan Consumers Association, points out that
the eel crisis, the newest in a series of blows to Japanese traditional cuisine
that includes the high-profile slump in blue-fin tuna for sushi, has
brought home a stark message that must be acknowledged and tackled quickly.
"The threat to eels this summer symbolizes a crisis we had chosen to
ignore but cannot any longer. It shows, very cruelly, that the Japanese are
steadily losing their food supply and also that money cannot buy everything,''
she told Inter Press Service (IPS).
Tomiyama, who spearheads a consumer movement based on caring for the
environment, safe food and boosting local agriculture output, explains that the
Japanese consumer has been led to believe their rich purchasing power gives
them access to anything.
But as cherished food items begin to disappear, said Tomiyama, people are
waking up to the reality that the government must develop policies that balance
both corporate purchasing power and respect for conservation.
Indeed, the ongoing whaling dispute, that has pitched Japan against
anti-whaling countries, is a case in point say conservationists.
Japan is angry that its proposal for a review of the whaling ban at the CITES (
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and
Flora) at the Hague, last week, was turned down.
"Anti-whalers are totally illogical because they put environmental
protection above everything else," Hideaki Okada, an official at the
whaling section at the Ministry of Fisheries explained to IPS.
He rejected claims that the whaling proposal was an attempt to reopen
commercial trade of whale products. "Japan wants a review to find out
which species should be put on the endangered list and what types can be
harvested. Our proposal is to develop a trade that is based on the sustainable
use of resources, not just blanket protection," he said.
The defeat at the Hague has led Tokyo to threaten to leave the International
Whaling Commission. Japan has also embarked on a campaign to promote the sale
of whale meat in the country, terming it traditional and culturally rooted.
Conservationists think otherwise. Professor Hideo Obara, a respected biologist,
said the official stance is dangerous as it resorts to nationalism to defend
practices that are based on the belief that technology and economic strength
are an answer to food issues.
"For example, Japan's scientific whaling is allowed on the assumption that
killing whales is necessary to collect accurate data on the species. This works
against the policy that endangered populations can only be resurrected by just
stopping harvesting," he explained. Under scientific whaling, 360 minke
whales are caught annually in the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific.
Obara added that Japan is not the only guilty nation and other Asian countries,
such as China and South Korea, are also following similar policies leading to
over fishing in the Pacific Ocean.
Sophisticated fishing technology and trawler boats showcasing Japanese
advancement has led to marine destruction, say conservationists. Experts also
point out that developing sophisticated fish farms, now heavily subsidized by
local governments, is not easy.
For example, a fisheries research center in collaboration with Kinki University
in Wakayma prefecture, west Japan, has spent millions of dollars on an advanced
breeding program, first launched in 1970, to boost the endangered blue-fin
Last year, the tuna bore eggs for the first time but commercial production is
expected to take much longer.
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