TOKYO -- An initiative to save the Japanese eel from extinction has stalled amid a divide between Japan and other East Asian markets where it is mostly farmed.
Without progress on conservation, trade in the species may become regulated under the so-called Washington Convention, making the already pricey fish even dearer.
No international framework exists to protect Anguilla japonica, unlike the Pacific bluefin tuna and other endangered seafood species.
Immature glass eel are caught wild and raised in farms for sale. Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan began talks in 2012 on cooperating to limit this trade. Two years later, they agreed to a goal of lowering existing caps on eel farming by a fifth.
They started work last year on a legally binding agreement, holding meetings in February and June. But the parties' conflicting interests have emerged as a stumbling block. The Chinese and Taiwanese sides worry about the domestic impact of such self-imposed limits. No date has been set for the next conference, which was supposed to have been held last September.
Overfishing and other factors have diminished native stocks of Japanese eel. In Japan, annual catches of glass eel have fallen to a tenth of their peak in the early 1960s. The amount of Japanese eel on the domestic market, where it is called unagi, sank to 37,000 tons in 2014, a quarter of the level of 2000.
As things stand, parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora may impose restrictions on trade in Japanese eel when they meet in South Africa in September. After the European eel was placed on Appendix II of the convention in 2009, making permits required for its export, trade in the fish plummeted.
Japanese eel have become dearer as the supply has waned. Wholesale prices at Tokyo's Tsukiji market averaged about 4,000 yen ($35) per kilogram last year, twice as much as a decade earlier. At 20,000 tons, imports account for more than half of the volume sold in Japan, so if the trade becomes regulated, prices may soar even higher.
"It can't be helped if prices rise in the interest of conservation," said Yasuyuki Wakui, who heads a national association of purveyors of kabayaki, a traditional grilled eel dish.