(Previously published in AndSociety, January 14th, 2017)
In America, we rarely think about food deprivation. Yet we are constantly learning about foods that have become scarce or on their way to extinction. Basics like bananas and oranges are under attack by viruses that may wipe both out as commercial crops in as little as 5 years. Strawberries are having a hard time dealing with rising temperatures and are not producing as much fruit as in past years. Now we can add eels to the list of disappearing foods!
Eels? Who eats eels? Well, just about everyone when you love sushi! Have you ever ordered Unagi at a sushi bar? It’s almost always barbecued in a sweet sauce, and delicious in sushi or in a rice bowl. In Japan, eel is so popular that they have dedicated eel restaurants. While American’s are just getting to the taste (and idea) of eels, they have been a favorite food in Japan for centuries. But if you want to try eel, you’d better hurry up! It looks like the world is running out of eels!
Eels are long, thin, and fin-less, but they are fish and not some species of snake, as some first-time eel eaters assume. And there isn’t just one kind of eel. There are over 800 species of eels that live in the sea or in freshwater. Without a doubt, Japan is the #1 market for eels, consuming over 70% of the eels harvested worldwide. For decades Japan has been supplementing declining local eel populations with eels from Europe, but now that strategy no longer works.
Wild eels have a complex lifecycle, spending a good deal of their juvenile lives in the ocean, and just like salmon, returning home as adults. In nature, eel eggs mature and the tiny baby eels start moving towards the east coast of the US. They then metamorphose into glass eels. A bucket of squirming glass eels looks a lot like a bucket of earthworms, except that they are transparent (that’s the “glass” in the eels). Then they keep growing, entering a stage where it is called an “elver”, where it loses its transparency. Then the eel moves inland, in lakes and rivers across America. Finally, it returns to the ocean as an adult.
But in the 1980’s something mysterious happened. The eel population across Europe dropped dramatically, by as much as 95%. Was it over-fishing, changes in weather or sea currents or something else? Experts are still debating the cause, but years have gone by and there hasn’t been any recovery in the eel population.
With wild eels in decline around the world, by the 1990’s eels for Japan had to come from a new source… America! As I said earlier, wild eels have a complex lifecycle. Well, it looks like the lifecycle of farmed eel is nearly as complex.
Their artificial life cycle begins in New England. In the past, glass eels were used as bait. Not anymore. This year the cost of glass eels hit a new high, $2,500 per lb. And next year might be even higher. That’s definitely not fish bait prices! An experienced eel fisher can make $100,000 or more per night during the short glass eel season. Of course, at these prices, more and more fishermen are showing up every year to dig in the mud for aquaculture gold. It doesn’t take a lot to connect the dots between this new fishing industry and an extinction event for the American Eel.
After glass eels are caught, they are packaged and sent around the world for a year or so of feeding. Taiwan used to the top spot for eel farming, but it has been overtaken by mainland China. For the final growth period, eels are often “finished” in Japan. Until very recently, American eels were considered to be less tasty and therefore less valuable than the local varieties. Eel fisheries claim that they have figured out how to adjust eel feeding and growing conditions to match the natural environment of their wild cousins and deliver richer and more nuanced flavors.
With European eels in sharp decline and Japanese eels being eyed very suspiciously since the rise in ocean radiation since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station disaster, America may be the last great source of eels for Japan. There are other species of eel in Africa, and Australia, but the American eel has become the eel of choice, explaining the growing demand for American glass eels and the high prices.
While $2,500 per lb. may seem like an insanely high price, it’s really just a pittance in the overall market. For every dollar worth of glass eels that are shipped from the US to China for farming, produces $8-$12 of eel. The cost in the restaurant is several times the farm price. It is estimated that the glass eel market in the US is just $40 million, but it is turned into a $1 billion aquaculture market.
Eel fishing in New England is regulated, but the sky-high prices for baby eels have started a rising tide of poaching that is only going to get worse over time. Japan will continue to demand the majority of the year’s catch. However, China is becoming a growing customer for eels and a competitor to Japan. The price will continue to rise and the availability of eels will fall.
Eels are far from the top of America’s environmental list, but if we don’t set up more controls over the domestic eel market, the glass eel may not have much time left. Tasty as they are, Japan and the world will need to control their appetite for eels!