Where’s The Queen’s Unagi?

June 11th, 2012By Category: Food & Dining, News


Grilled unagi

Photo © inageya

The burning question on everyone’s mind, in this the 60th year of the Queen of England’s reign, where will her Jubilee Pie come from? According to a centuries old tradition, the shepherd’s style pie made of Lampreys—an eely fish native to British waters—comes from none other than Gloucester’s prestigious River Severn. But this year, due to the shortage of British Lampreys, the fishy contents of her pie will have to be imported from cousin Canadian waters. Such is the case these days with most all freshwater eel, especially the Japanese favorite Unagi. Mostly known outside of Japan as a kind of sushi, unagi is also traditionally—and expensively—prepared at specialty eel restaurants throughout the country as kabayaki, or una-don, broiled over steamed rice and topped with a sweet soy sauce reduction. But the unagi you are eating at your local sushi joint, otherwise known as Anguilla Japonica, is, these days anyway, anything but a Japanese native. Wha…why? That’s impossible. Everyone knows that unagi is a specifically Japanese delicacy. How could this have happened? And what about the queen and her Lamprey subjects?

But the unagi you are eating at your local sushi joint, otherwise known as Anguilla Japonica, is, these days anyway, anything but a Japanese native. Wha…why? That’s impossible. Everyone knows that unagi is a specifically Japanese delicacy. How could this have happened? And what about the queen and her Lamprey subjects?

The Huffington Post recently ran a headline that read, “Price Of Eels Skyrockets To $2,000 Per Pound In Maine As Result Of Worldwide Shortage.” $2000? I know the U.S. Dollar isn’t what it used to be but, that’s still a whole lotta lettuce for a pound of sea snake. When did they become so valuable, so hard sought, so so…goddamned expensive? According to Seafood Watch, the ecological sustainability program monitoring both wild-caught and farmed seafood, operated by Monterey Bay Aquarium, apparently it’s very complicated. Their 2007 report concluded that, since eel is a capture-based aquaculture industry—meaning that eel farmers have not been able to breed eel in captivity, so they have to capture the babies, called glass eels for their translucent appearance, at sea, their production is unpredictable at best, and seriously endangered at worst.

First, it needs to be said that freshwater eel are catadromous — that before spending the majority of their lives inhabiting the mud and rocks of freshwater rivers and lakes the world around — they come from the ocean. And for a long time we didn’t exactly know where that was. From the 2007 Seafood Watch Report on Unagi, “Spawning has never been directly observed, and the location of spawning grounds is inferred on the basis of where the smallest eel larvae have been captured.” They would just appear, after having floated thousands of miles across the world, at the mouths of rivers in North America, Europe, Asia, and so on, where they were caught, fattened up and tossed into pie-like crusts for queens and whatnot. Easy peasy. But when they recently stopped slithering up on the shores of coastal towns the world over and chasing beautiful princesses while hissing like Nagini, “Eat me…eat me…slice me open, grill and EAT ME!”, something had to be done.

unagi

Photo © ztv

Not knowing much about where exactly that place was where the eel pups would swim from—and back to once they were ready to mate, and then die, begs the question: Is there a mystical Atlantean underwater island — perhaps called Anguillica? — where the guileful eel king decrees that his subjects should go forth and allow themselves to be caught, farmed, cooked and eaten by the dirty, two-legged land pigs, whereupon once they become addicted to the succulent flesh of eelkind, the king will magically hide Anguillica, and the greedy land pigs will fall into a massive, simultaneous delirium tremens and the addictive withdrawal will subdue them once they can no longer subsist off of the stamina-fortified and vitamin-packed flesh, leading the way for the eel king to rule once again. Long Live The Eel King! Long Live Anguillica!

Get it straight: eels have more than a few life stages: the Leptocephalus larvae that complete the long swim to fresh water, where they morph into glass eels (which we catch and farm), and eventually grow up through the various stages of elver and then yellow eel, swim inland and live for years before hitting sexual maturity as silver eels. Years, decades even. The European eel has been documented as old as 88 years. When a fisherman catches an eel, that eel likely will not reproduce. When a thousand fishermen catch a thousand eels, those eels will never have baby eels of their own. If anthropomorphization were ever at all apt, to say that eels hate anything, it would be captivity. So repellent to their core being is being captured, herded and farmed to these slick elongated fish of the super order Elopomorpha, that despite the various ingenious farming techniques and the fisheries practices in use throughout the world, eels are profoundly good at escape. All they want to do is to live in a lake until it’s time to swim to the middle of nowhere, screw and die. Seafood Watch says, “Eels are behaviorally, physiologically, and morphologically well equipped to escape from all but the most secure aquaculture facility.” Unable to catch and hold their own native eels, this has caused farmers to import non-native eels, mixing up the species and introducing of a variety of pathogens and harmful bacteria to highly susceptible stocks, thus further depleting the already precarious freshwater eel population.

It is hard to say, but while marine biologists have determined that American and European eels are assumed to come from the Sargasso sea, and only as recently as 1992 that Japanese eels come from near the Marianas, the resulting miniscule Leptocephalus larvae reaching land only after a long float on northbound currents toward the freshwater where they will spend most of their surprisingly long lives, the spawning grounds have not been traced to any one particular site. It could be that there is not one site, that life in – and on – the sea is a mercurial one at best and getting it on with a sexy eel lady, even in placid waters, would be a difficult challenge for the luckiest of eels. Successfully mate on the high seas? Then you get to die. Otherwise, exhausted and unlucky, that’s right, you still, just get to die.

What is the alternative to that? You get eaten and never have the chance to get it on, er reproduce, seeking in vain to escape to a watery grave. Enter the human factor. Humans have been eating eel for well over two thousand years, probably longer. Ever since we spotted them showing up on shore and scaring our princesses, we decided the best way to punish them would be to eat them.


But it wasn’t until the Japanese seemed to perfect the recipe by broiling, serving over steamed rice, and adding a yummy sauce (kabayaki tare), and then in predictable Japanese fashion, exporting eel out to the rest of the world, that humans began to consume them in such numbers that it became unsustainable.


Like in most eel-infested waters in Britain, the U.S., Vietnam, Korea, New Zealand, and so many more, the eels are not coming home to roost. So most of the eels served in Japan is European (Anguilla Anguilla) and to a lesser extent American (Anguilla Rostrata), which is bought by Asian merchants (often illegally), exported and farmed in places like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and then sold across the world as authentic Japanese “kabayaki”. Ironically, these same traders buy the expensive little elvers from farmers along the eastern U.S. seaboard—Maine being a hotbed—and, after raising them, sell them back to sushi vendors across the United States. This is similar to how Tilapia — among other species of fish—is raised. Unsustainable business practice much? Massive carbon snake print anyone?

unagi chef

Photo © boso nomura

It takes humans some time to grasp the consequences of their actions, especially when they reside on a global scale and take in the customs and practices of myriad cultures, fisheries and businesses, but it is now clear that having anything to do with any of the three freshwater eel varieties, other than praying to the eel king to “let our people go”, is destroying the last of an unfortunately tasty species. Perhaps much like the spawning habits of the eels, the understanding of humans breeds on an unknown island lost in the vast and stormy seas of uncharted waters, afloat for an indeterminate period of time before reaching land years before sexual maturity. Yet when money and food mix with culinary history, it is often hard to get anyone to hear the voicing of environmental concerns over the champing of tasty flesh.

So, much like the Atlantic Cod industry of the past millennium, it was inevitable that a confluence of factors should bring about the depletion of freshwater eel. How many times will it take to understand that introducing disease into a complicated ecosystem while overfishing a sensitive species which will not reproduce in captivity is a recipe for disaster? Much more and you’ll be eating your unakyu roll without the una. There are, of course, other factors: millennium-old businesses are closing, fisherman are being displaced. Who takes the hit? The eels or the humans? The question remains, delicious as they are, all steamy atop sticky rice and oozing in sweet sauce, can they be brought back to their former glory? Will British Lamprey once again inhabit the crusty Jubilee Pie on the queen’s next anniversary? No offense to the queen in her diamond year, but I would rather that god saved the eel.


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Author of this article

Manny Santiago

Hopping back and forth between Tokyo and San Francisco, the founder of HESO Magazine is currently writing a book on Overland Travel.

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