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Food & Beverage

China clamps down on baby eel trade in blow to unagi restaurants

Proposed export restrictions risk cutting off Japan's main supply

Poor eel catches have led to surging prices in Japan for kabayaki, a popular summer dish. (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

TOKYO -- Chinese fishery companies look to restrict international trade in baby eels, focusing on domestic farming in a move that could worsen shortages in unagi-loving Japan.

The plan is to set up new oversight bodies this winter in Guangdong Prefecture, a major eel aquaculture region. These will work with customs officials to keep tabs on distribution routes. Licenses will be required for exports, with unauthorized trade subject to penalties, though the requirements for such licenses have yet to be disclosed.

Japanese unagi farmers were informed of the plan late last month at a meeting with Chinese counterparts in Guangdong. Japan has grown increasingly reliant on young eels from China to make up for poor domestic catches, and reduced access to this key supply source could leave consumers shelling out even more for a favorite summer dish.

The proposal was raised by China's chamber of commerce on food, produce and animal byproduct imports and exports -- whose members include producers and processors of agricultural and seafood products -- alongside local eel-farming organizations. The chamber said it has sent notices around the country requesting cooperation on this effort.

Eel at a farm in Guangdong Province, China. (Photo by Takumi Sasaki)

About 90% of the eel Japan consumes is farmed. Young eels are caught off the coasts of Japan, Taiwan and mainland China in early spring and spend about half a year in farms growing to maturity and fattening up.

But catches in Japan have been shrinking, and nearly 80% of the 15 tons of juvenile eels put into Japanese aquaculture ponds this past spring are believed to have been brought in from China. Imports nearly doubled by volume from 2018.

This has stoked frustration in China. "Japan has been getting almost all the baby eel," said a representative at a processing company there. "Chinese farmers and processors can't get by."

The proposed restrictions would further drive up Japan's already lofty prices. The cost of juvenile eels reached 2.19 million yen ($20,100) per kilogram this past spring -- more than double the level five years earlier.

In the summer, when consumer demand for unagi peaks, the wholesale price of adult fish jumped 10% on the year. The popular dish kabayaki -- broiled eel in a sweet sauce -- was 20% more expensive than in 2018, selling for 1,980 yen to 2,500 yen on supermarket shelves. Further increases are likely if catches are poor again this season.

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