On Friday the Japanese government’s Environment Ministry officially added Nihon unagi, or Japanese eel, to the “endangered” category of the country’s Red List of animals ranging from “threatened” to “extinct.” Joining other endangered fish species that live in domestic rivers, marshes, and lakes, the eel’s worsening status means there is a high risk of complete extinction in the near future.
It was only in mid-September of last year that the Japanese eel was designated as “vulnerable,” a status that indicates the beginnings of a threatened existence. The yearly catches of the eels have rapidly deteriorated in recent years, now standing at only 5% of the levels seen in the 1960s. Observers believe a loss of natural habitat, combined with overfishing, is the primary reason for the declining numbers. Much like other types of seafood, Japan is one of the world’s largest consumers of eel, accounting for nearly 70%. Analysts warn the Japanese eel is indispensable to the country’s food culture, and protection measures like limiting catches are necessary to save the species.
The problem, however, is that the Red List has no legal authority in Japan, meaning there is way to implement binding regulations in the near future. Japan’s Fisheries Agency says it will work towards the species’ recovery with protection measures, but as it’s an organization that works for profits, who knows how much truth there is to that claim. Large quantities of Japanese eel are actually imported from China and Taiwan, and talks between the three countries about limiting catches have already begun.