Nearly half of endangered Japanese juvenile eels farmed in the country may have been illegally caught, a Kyodo News survey found Wednesday.
The survey found 45.45 percent of young eels caught in Japan between last November and April were possibly catches without authorization by prefectural governments or were cases of fishermen underreporting domestic catches.
Experts are calling for tighter resource management of Japanese eels, mainly found in East Asia, as they are designated as a species at risk of extinction by the Environment Ministry and the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to deteriorating habitat conditions and overfishing.
According to the Fisheries Agency, 19.5 tons of juvenile eels were placed into aquaculture ponds in Japan between November and April. With 4.1 tons of young eels imported from Hong Kong in the same period, domestic catches should amount to 15.4 tons.
However, the amount of eel catches authorized by 24 prefectures in Japan totaled only 8.4 tons, 7 tons less than the supposed amount, according to the Kyodo News tally.
Similar differences were seen in the period between November 2014 and October 2015 at 9.6 tons and between November 2015 and October 2016 at 5.9 tons.
Kenzo Kaifu, an associate professor of conservation ecology at Chuo University, said the gaps probably represent underreporting of catches or poaching.
The Fisheries Agency believes fishermen often do not report the correct amount of catches as they find reporting troublesome, or to keep areas with good catches secret from rivals.
As Hong Kong does not engage in eel fishing, some experts point to the possibility that young eels are smuggled into the region from Taiwan, which bans eel exports, before they are shipped from Hong Kong to Japan.
“If we leave underreporting or poaching unattended, we cannot grasp accurate amount of the resources and it would be difficult to use them in a sustainable manner,” Kaifu said, adding there is a need to introduce a system of traceability.
But a Fisheries Agency official sounded negative in employing such a system, saying, “We don’t see any problems of resource management because poached young eels are eventually placed into aquaculture ponds and the total amount will be reported later.”
Takehito Yoshida, an associate professor of ecology at the University of Tokyo, said, “Underreporting and poaching not only concern resource management but also could undermine social trust in the whole eel industry. (Authorities) need to actively take measures.”
As catches of Japanese eels have fallen sharply, Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea agreed in September 2014 to slash the volume of juvenile eels put into aquaculture ponds by 20 percent from the previous year.