Home Community Sansei Journal Unagi Unraveling

Unagi Unraveling

TUESDAY, July 21 is Doyou Ushi no Hi in Japan. It is a special day for “beating the heat” by eating eels. The date comes down to us from clever eel-restaurant marketing since the Edo era. For on that day, the first syllable “u” of unagi matches that of “ushi no hi.” The latter is the midsummer Day of the Ox on the Chinese lunar calendar.

This year, I am taking advantage of the date to ask readers to consider ceasing eating eels. This may come across as an extraordinary request, for many readers have consumed eels their entire lives.

In making this plea, I will confess that I am as guilty as most readers in being fond of unagi donburi: marinated eel atop a huge bowl of rice. The dish has been among my favorites since I was a child. In this endeavor, it didn’t hurt that my family ran a Japanese grocery, one of three remaining in the International District at the time. Accordingly, we had more access to canned unagi than most.

Later, as an adult, I discovered that unagi is available in stores frozen. This is the form that is served roasted on top of sushi. In such shops, I also learned that there is a different, more mildly flavored kind of eel, termed “anago.” From anago sushi, I recognized the eel that Japanese restaurants occasionally serve as tempura.

In Japan, I have especially enjoyed the eye-catching artwork with which eel restaurants lure customers. For because the sinewy Japanese letter for “u” in hiragana script resembles the snake-like fish, a drawing of an eel is commonly substituted for the letter in the word “unagi” on noren. The latter is the cotton awning that announces to passersby, “We’re open and serve eels.”

SO WHY, then, my turnaround on eating eels? The reason is that eel populations are declining rapidly worldwide. On a global scale, their populations in the wild are about ten percent of their levels in the 1960s. Moreover, more than other foods, such as beef, which are starting to look unsustainable owing to climate change, unagi over-harvesting is a more tractable problem to address with an article in a Japanese community paper. For Japan is responsible for 70 percent of the world’s eel consumption. It doesn’t help that it has taught the world’s industrial countries to eat unagi sushi.

TO START at the beginning, the unagi we have eaten are freshwater eels, known technically by their scientific family name, Anguilladae. Unagi are catadromous. This means they follow a migration pattern opposite that of salmon. Born in the ocean, they spend their adult lives in freshwater streams. They later return to the sea to mate and die, commonly swimming hundreds of miles to get to equatorial breeding grounds.

Anago (scientific name, Conger), by contrast, are marine or salt-water eels. They are solely ocean dwellers.
Three Anguilla species are the focus of most conservation discussions worldwide. They are the Japanese eel, the European eel, and the American eel. These live, respectively, in countries bordering the northwest Pacific (Philippines and East Asia), in lands facing the northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean, and in eastern North America and the Caribbean islands.

When migrating, the eels follow parallel trails to offshore the Mariana Islands and the Sargasso Sea, which envelops Bermuda. Yet precipitous declines of all natural populations are inferred from the waning return rates of translucent baby “glass eels” to temperate shores.

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE, most unagi eaten today come from aquaculture. The fish are raised in tanks.

The problem is that glass eels cannot yet be raised from eggs on a commercial scale. Thus, the wild juvenile “elvers” are netted as they approach temperate rivers from the sea. Thus, unagi aquaculture is more accurately described as “ranching” instead of farming. The capture of glass eels has been likened to making bank withdrawals without making matching deposits.

A related problem is the long lifespan of wild freshwater eels relative to the 20 minutes it takes to eat an eel meal. While eels have been documented to live 15-20 years, one 85-year old has been recorded.

Accordingly, glass eels are like gold. The demand is great enough to ship them from Maine to aquaculture farms throughout East Asia to meet the demand for unagi in Japan.

TODAY, freshwater eels are still sold in stores. For example, Amazon lists a 3.5-ounce “sardine” can of them at $3-$10.

Yet this status seems likely to change in the near future. The falling wild eel populations are being watched by environmental organizations and government regulatory agencies. Groups that have red-flagged freshwater eels as a food resource whose harvest is unsustainable, and is thus deemed unethical, include the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They added it to their Red List of Threatened Species in 2014.

Similarly, Seafood Watch, a science-based consumer guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommends “avoiding” European and Japanese eels from all sources. It similarly advises avoiding farmed American eels from all suppliers (China, S. Korea, Japan, and Taiwan). It sees adult fish netted from streams and from the Atlantic the only “good” option.

AS UNAGI POPULATIONS DIP, the saddest thing is that there is still much we don’t know about these secretive creatures. For example, if otolith (ear-bone) studies of New Zealand Anguilla show that individuals 50 cm (20 inches) long are generally 20 years old, how old are the 3-4 foot monsters that one can see people catching and releasing for sport in Australia, the US, and elsewhere on YouTube? And how do they decide when to go to sea?