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Commodities

Japan and China eel industries huddle as prices surge

Small hauls and Chinese appetite squeeze market with summer peak approaching

Chinese eel is vital to meeting Japanese demand for the summer delicacy, but Chinese consumers' growing taste for the fish is eating into an already low supply. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- Eel farmers and traders from Japan and China will meet here Wednesday to discuss price and supply outlooks, as rising Chinese consumption on top of a worsening shortage threaten to drive up the cost of a popular Japanese summer treat.

About 99% of the eel consumed in Japan is farmed. Baby eels are caught off the coasts of Japan, China and Taiwan in the spring and brought to farms to grow and fatten up.

Just 11 tons of eel fry had been placed into Japanese aquaculture ponds at the end of March, down 40% from a year earlier, government data released Tuesday shows. And much of the catch came relatively late, leaving too little time for the fish to mature before doyo no ushi no hi, the midsummer day when Japanese traditionally eat eel.

Much of the inexpensive kabayaki -- broiled eel in a sweet sauce -- on Japanese supermarket shelves comes from China, one of the world's largest eel producers. The country ships the fish to 50 markets worldwide, with Japan being the top destination. But China has put 2 or 3 tons of baby eels in ponds this year -- a tenth of last year's total.

These poor catches are already pushing prices higher. The wholesale price of frozen kabayaki from China at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market has jumped 50% from a year earlier to 3,000 yen ($28) per kilogram.

Furthermore, Chinese consumers have a growing taste for eel. More Japanese-style eel specialty shops are cropping up in such major cities as Shanghai, and a dish of unaju grilled eel over rice now goes for much the same as in Japan -- around 2,500 yen -- according to the head of an eel industry group affiliated with the China Chamber of Commerce of Foodstuffs and Native Produce. Eel has also become a popular choice at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, on a par with salmon and ikura salmon roe.

Chinese farmers had typically supplied lower-end eel for domestic consumption. But consumers are increasingly hungry for the higher-quality products typically sent to Japan, the official said, adding that demand may become less Japan-centric.

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