The Japanese have a ferocious appetite for fish, with unagi being a common ingredient in Japanese cooking. Unfortunately for them, they have taken their love for fish too far and have fished and eaten their freshwater eel species to near extinction.
Here is an interesting statistic: The Japanese consume 70 percent of all the freshwater eels caught around the world. In fact, one in 10 of the global fish catch is eaten by them.
According to Esquire Magazine, over-consumption has resulted in a massive decline of the elongated fish, with their numbers dropping to a mere 10 to 30 percent of their original population in just three generations.
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The main reason why this is even an issue is because breeding freshwater eel in aquatic farms is virtually impossible. As atadromous fish, they spawn in the sea but live most of their adult lives in freshwater. Artificially mimicking both environments, as well as the complex eel’s migratory and mating process, has proven too difficult for scientists.
Japan’s freshwater eels can be found from Greenland all the way to South America. After reaching 25 years of age, they journey to the Sargasso Sea in the Northern Atlantic to lay eggs and die.
The three species of freshwater eel that aquaculture, and basically the whole of Japan, depends on for their insatiable appetite are all in steep decline and it could takes decades to get them back to healthy numbers. Many restaurants have already shut down because of the unavailability of unagi.
Preparation requires the eels to be alive. Not only are they difficult to handle, but they also contain a neurotoxin that only expert chefs can nullify. One wrong step and the customers risk being poisoned.
I have never tried unagi (have you?), but it must taste like heaven for the Japanese to eat it as much as they do. Other sea creatures they are eating into extinction are tuna and certain sea lions and seals.