Unagi, or freshwater eel, is too delicious for its own good. Freshwater eel, which is traditionally known to bring strength and vitality to those who consume its meat, is in dire need of its own aphrodisiac properties as eel populations decline worldwide. In response to degrading stocks of eel, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has added Japanese Eel to its red list of endangered species, adding another voice against the unsustainable fishing and farming practices used in the production of eel. Freshwater eel is also on the avoid lists of Seafood Watch, Sea Choice, Ocean Wise, and the David Suzuki Foundation, marking the species unilaterally as an unsustainable choice. Freshwater eel has a life cycle which is affected by developments in both fresh and saltwater as adults spawn in salt water, with young eel travel thousands of miles to their freshwater habitats where they grow. This makes eel vulnerable to developments in the ocean, rivers, marshes and ponds.
It is the degradation of their freshwater habitats in particular which is causing the loss of population. As July 24th, the Ushinohi “eel day” approaches in Japan, the need for conservation and awareness is magnified. Freshwater eel is not just declining because of demand. Overfishing, loss of habitat and large scale, gradual shifts in ocean conditions are all contributing to the lowering population of freshwater eel. When a species of seafood becomes overfished, there is generally a push towards farming initiatives in order to produce a sustainable, cost-effective method of production. In the case of freshwater eel, farming is one of the leading causes of their decline. Farmed eel are taken from their habitats when young and brought to farms in order to grow. This has the effect of taking eel out of their natural breeding cycle, as the eel are not at the reproductive stage when taken from their habitats. Eel farming is done with open net pens, which has the added effect of allowing parasites, waste products and diseases to be introduced to the natural habitats.
Japanese eel populations have been decimated in the past half century due to factors ranging from unsustainable farming practices, climate change, and also barriers in waterways. As freshwater eel are born in the ocean, they must be able to travel back to their freshwater habitats in order to proceed in the five stages of their life. Dam construction has prevented upstream migration of eel, and agricultural, urban and industrial developments have all combined to put stress on the species.
Japan has reacted to the threats to their eel populations by placing a ban on the catch of juvenile eel. But IUU (illegal, unregulated and unreported) fishing is taking a toll on the population of this endangered species. The IUCN estimates that illegal fishing of eel could represent twice the amount of licensed eel fishing. Until world fisheries are able to cut down on illegal fishing, no conservation effort or management plan is going to be able to stop the decline in freshwater eel.