The eel deal: Sky’s the limit for unagi prices
It was only about a year ago that scientists discovered where Japanese eels, locally known as unagi, spawn. It turns out to be somewhere near the West Mariana Ridge, not far from Guam. The discovery was important because after hatching unagi fry swim north and are caught at sea in the waters off Japan, China and Taiwan. The fry are then sold to farms where they are raised until they are full-grown eels. However, since the 1970s fry catches have steadily dwindled due to overfishing and climate factors.
The discovery of the hatching grounds, which may help scientists figure out a way of better raising unagi from eggs, couldn’t have come too soon. At the moment wholesale prices for unagi are skyrocketing, threatening the livelihoods of many restaurants that specialize in eel cuisine. The owner of three eel restaurants in Tokyo was recently quoted in the Asahi Shimbun as saying that last week the price he paid for one eel increased by ¥300. That’s the eighth price increase since the year started. And he buys his unagi from China, which is usually cheaper than domestically raised eel. The wholesale price of Chinese eel has gone up fivefold in the last three years. Right now a kilogram — about five eels — costs him ¥5,800. The cheapest unaju (grilled eel on rice) in his restaurant is now ¥3,000. Though the owner has increased prices accordingly, he’s still in the red. He’s so desperate, in fact, that he’s printed the wholesale price on the menu so that customers understand why they’re paying so much all of a sudden, and he’s thinking of closing one of his restaurants. Another eel restaurateur in Nihonbashi told the Asahi that he’s already had to break into his savings to keep his establishment running. He’s reluctant to raise prices because of the current deflationary trend. “If prices go up,” he said, “more customers will turn away.”
Though eel hauls have been less than they were decades ago, catch amounts tend to follow cycles — a drop followed by an increase in the number of fry available. But availability has gone down steeply for three years running. According to an industry association of eel farmers, the “appropriate” price for eel fry is considered to be between ¥300,000 and ¥500,000 per kilogram, which is why young unagi are called “diamonds” by fishermen. However, in 2011, the average price for a kilogram of fry rose to ¥1 million, and last month it doubled to ¥2 million. About 70 percent of eel farmers are independent businessmen who have no funds to fall back on, and now their stock is about half what it was a year ago. Since it takes at least six months for eel fry to grow into adult eels that can be sold, all are having cash flow problems.
There are several theories for the low catch. One is the influence of El Nino, which changes ocean currents and points the fry south instead of north. However, it’s also obvious that unagi have been overfished for years and the supply may have simply reached a tipping point. The most expensive unagi are “natural,” meaning adults caught in the wild. The more that are caught, the fewer that make it back to the Mariana Ridge to spawn. According to the Fisheries Agency, in the 1960s 3,000 tons of egg-producing adult eels and 200 tons of fry were caught per year. By 2000, the number of adults caught had dropped below 1,000 tons, and in 2005 the number dropped below 500. The association is pushing for a ban on catching adult unagi, or at least restrictions on where they can be caught.
Hatching eggs and raising baby eels is very difficult, and some research centers are working on the problem. Until such a process becomes economically viable, eel farmers will have to continue buying fry from specially licensed fishermen. Catching eel fry without a license is a crime, and competition from fishermen in China and Taiwan is fierce. In fact, the discovery of the hatching grounds, along with the current shortage of fry, may put to rest one of the more contentious issues surrounding the unagi industry in Japan. Several years ago, an unagi retailer was busted because he claimed his product was domestically raised when, in fact, it was from China. At the time the retail price of Japanese eel was two to three times higher than that of Chinese eels. Now, such differences hardly matter, especially since everyone realizes that wherever the eels are raised, they all come from the same source.