GOCHANG, SOUTH KOREA — Japan is poised to declare an eel emergency, anxiously waiting to see if the popular seafood delicacies soon are placed on a “red list” of threatened species. That move would not, though, restrict eel catches. The United States is considering pushing international restrictions, however, on several types of eel and that could affect the global eel trade.
It's feeding time at the Gochang eel farm in South Korea. These fish are headed for kitchens across northeast Asia, where Japanese and South Koreans devour the vast majority of the global catch.
Eels, served fresh or processed, are rich in vitamins, calcium and protein. They are popular, especially in the warmer months, to combat fatigue and boost stamina.
The species preferred by Asian diners is Anguilla japonica - the Japanese eel. The eel’s larvae migrate from the Philippines Sea to rivers around China, Japan, and South Korea, where the species is overfished.
The owner of a chain of gourmet eel restaurants in Japan, Hiroshi Suzuki, said no substitute is as appetizing.
“The European or French varieties have too much fat so they repel the special seasoning sauce Japanese expect on freshwater eel. And the North American eels do not have enough fat so they turn out to be too crispy,” said Suzuki.
Aquaculture cannot replicate the life cycle of eels, which only spawn once in their lifetimes.
That is a challenge for aqua-farmers, such as Lee Jae-jung, a former nuclear power plant engineer, who has been wrestling with slippery eels for nearly 30 years and now processes 190,000 of them every year.
“Eels cannot be hatched artificially. Nearly all eels that are farmed come from the sea. These eels are hatched in the Philippines. We catch them when they come to the fresh water from the sea," said Jae-jung.
With the price for eel in restaurants and shops surging, one would think that the owners of fish farms, such as this one in South Korea, would be elated. But that is not the case.
“When the price of eel increases, consumers tend to eat less of it because it is so costly. Thus we are affected by the slowdown in eel consumption. However, our operation is able to withstand the downturn better than most others,” said Jae-jung.
In the past year, high prices have forced an estimated one-third of the eel restaurants in South Korea and Japan to close.
Other restaurant owners, such as Suzuki, support restricting trade in the japonica variety to keep prices high.
“If the prices decrease then department stores and supermarkets will be in competition with us for the limited supply, and the eel restaurants will not be able to get an adequate quantity,” he said.
Some conservationists say even stricter measures are needed, such as banning all catches of adult eels and sharply limiting those of young eels. Otherwise they predict some of these eels, which have been around for tens of millions of years, will become extinct.