June 26, 2018. Greenpeace Japan is highlighting the prevalence of illegally-sourced eel in Japan’s supply chain and is calling for more traceability in advance of the midsummer day of the ox, a holiday celebrated by eating grilled eel. This year it falls on two days: 20 July and 1 August. Greenpeace issued a report on 4 June that shows eels are at high risk from poaching and illegal transactions. The organization conducted a survey on eel procurement at major supermarkets, and found it was rare for the label attached to the grilled eel package to describe what kind of eel it is.
Unagi Kabayaki Dish, Japan. Copyright: Sustainable Eel Group 2017
While there are four eels used for grilled eel – Japanese eel, European eel, American eel and bicolor eel – because grilled eel is a processed item, writing only “eel” is no problem in terms of rules. Although in 2013 the Fisheries Agency requested voluntary labeling of Japanese eel, few supermarkets do so. Akiko Tsuchiya of Greenpeace Japan said retailers should be required to label what species is contained in all boxes of grilled eel.
For its report, Greenpeace bought eel at the 18 shops and had an external DNA laboratory conduct genetic testing. The organization said the most confusion was between Japanese and American eel. The tests found one product labeled as grilled Japanese eel was actually American eel. Greenpeace said that it is proof that the supply chain from the glass eels to the shop is wrapped in darkness.
Greenpeace said it did not find European eel on the market in Japan, most likely as a result of restrictions the European Union has placed on exports of the species. Bicolor eel is not major in the Japanese market yet, but in the survey many supermarkets said they would consider selling it, as other eels become scarcer. This highlights a problem that placing restrictions on one species shifts demand to other species, which in turn become over-exploited, Greenpeace said.
Because baby eels, or glass eels, are very expensive, there is likely to be poaching and fraudulent transactions both in Japan and overseas, Greenpeace said. Of the 16 companies that cooperated in the survey, most said that it is impossible to trace the supply chain from capturing glass eels to putting them in a fish pond. In the survey, 11 of the companies said that there was no grilled eel that could be guaranteed not to be black market eel.
Greenpeace also criticized the amount of grilled eel that is dumped after its expiry date. Though throwing out perishable food is common for all types of food, since many eels are endangered, the organization felt that more effort should be made to reduce its waste.
Kenzo Kaifu, a professor at Chuo University and eel conservation expert, echoed Greenpeace’s call for more traceability in the supply chain for eel in Japan.
“I think a traceable system for glass eel fishing and trading consists of reporting and marking,” Kaifu said. “Every trade should be required to be reported. This makes clear which trades are cheating. And every report should be done electronically. This makes monitoring easier and also enables real-time monitoring.”
Kaifu also explained a possible method of tracing eels through marking the otolith, a calcareous organ located in the inner ear of eels.
“Because the otolith is never metabolized, chemicals in the otolith will remain even after the fish is dead. With strontium or other chemicals, we can mark [the] otolith and can check the mark later,” he said. “When this system works, we can tell when an eel does not have the mark, it has been distributed through an inadequately traceable route.”