Aquaculture for all

Eel Prices Continue to Rise Despite Technological Advances

Eels Technology & equipment Economics +4 more

JAPAN - Despite the development of eel farming technology and the importation of fry from abroad, prices of eel continue to soar.

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TheJapanNews reports that with eel prices still on the rise, the industry has been searching for other solutions. While a new cultivation technique that does not require the use of natural fry is under development, some eel farmers have been considering importing young fish from Southeast Asia that have rarely been seen in the Japanese market until now.

However, both attempts are not expected to provide an instant remedy to the price hikes as it will likely take time to secure a volume large enough to satisfy domestic demand.

A new technology enabling the mass production of eel is being studied at a laboratory in Minami-Ise, Mie Prefecture, overseen by the Fisheries Research Agency headquartered in Yokohama. If the project is successful, the result will be a significant drop in eel prices in Japan, where nearly all eel consumed is cultivated.

The study aims at realizing "full cultivation," a process in which farmers raise natural eggs to adult fish, which are then allowed to spawn. The spawned eggs are first raised to elvers, then to adult eels at a farm. Unlike current methods, in which farmers buy and raise natural elvers, the new measure can stably produce the necessary supply.

The agency first succeeded in full cultivation in 2010, and now it aims at developing the capacity to produce about 10,000 elvers a year by fiscal 2016. The central government has set a goal of putting the technology into practical use by around fiscal 2020 in its comprehensive strategy to boost scientific and technological innovation compiled in June.

Because there still are many mysteries about eel ecology, raising the fish from eggs is believed to be very difficult. Therefore the agency has been testing various methods, such as creating special feed that does not pollute water.

"We want to meet the industry’s request to create a stable supply of eel fry," an agency official said.

Some companies have been importing bicolor eel from the Philippines and Indonesia as a substitute for Japanese eel, which comprises most of the eel consumed in Japan, including those raised domestically, as well as those imported from China.

As bicolor eel are relatively abundant, the price of their elvers is only one-tenth of that of Japanese eel. If cooked in the traditional way of kabayaki - broiled and coated in soy-based sauce - the difference between bicolor eel and Japanese eel is said to be hardly detectable.

Kazuhiko Matsunobu, a 68-year-old eel farmer in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, was recently invited by a state government in Malaysia to jointly cultivate its domestic bicolor eel. As he could not purchase any Japanese elvers this year, Matsunobu said he would try cultivating bicolor eels next year.

However, since efforts at full cultivation and imports of foreign eel have only just begun, the eel industry remains in a dire state.

When Kagoshima prefectural government, which produces the nation’s largest volume of cultivated eel, surveyed 46 eel farming businesses in the prefecture, nine of them said they could not purchase any elvers.

The annual catch of natural elvers peaked in 1960s with more than 200 tons, but this year the figure dropped to five tons. Even when imports from China and Taiwan are calculated, the total is only 12.6 tons. The drop is believed to be caused by such factors as over-fishing, river development and climate change. This year, the price of elvers, which was 380,000 yen per kilogram in 2009, jumped as high as 3 million yen.

In February, the Environment Ministry added Japanese eel to the Endangered category of its Red List. Raicho grouse, for example, is also classified in this category, which indicates a high possibility of future extinction.

It also signals the possibility that the global eel trade may be banned in the near future, making it impossible for Japanese farmers to import elvers. Then the price is predicted to rise even further.

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