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Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Japan looks abroad as eel prices soar
HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka Pref. — Japanese dealers are buying more grown eels from the far corners of the world, including Madagascar and Australia, due to low catches of young eels prior to this summer's "eel-eating day" on Friday.
Japanese custom holds that eating the nutritious fish in the dog days of summer can help people weather the intense heat, and July 27 was chosen as a special day to publicize it.
Japan relies on imports for 70 to 80 percent of the eels it consumes. Of the 73,800 tons of domestically consumed eels in 2010, 53,100 tons were imported, mainly from China and Taiwan, according to the Fisheries Agency. Japan has also started importing eels from France, Indonesia, Ireland, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, the U.S. and Vietnam.
While eels from the Southern Hemisphere account for a small fraction of Japan's total imports, the prices are reasonable and could prove to be a boon for Japanese consumers.
"I've found that eels are raised in Africa through some research," said an official with a trading house in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, a city known for its eel-farming industry.
In late June the company imported a sample shipment of about 150 kg of farmed eels from Madagascar, which raises the fish for European consumers.
The firm, which deals mainly in machine parts, decided to buy the eels at the request of local food processors who have been badly hurt by soaring prices.
Madagascar eels differ from the kind commonly eaten in Japan but have received good reviews from Japanese dealers who say they taste like domestically grown eels after being grilled.
The trading firm plans to import about a ton of Madagascar eels a week starting in late August. The price will likely be about 40 percent lower than that of Japanese eels.
Ebisen, a Hamamatsu-based seafood wholesaler, has been buying naturally grown eels from Tasmania for the past several years as eels from other areas have become more expensive.
"Meaty eels (from Tasmania) taste good whether they're grilled or fried," said the company's director, Naoya Kamo.
While the prices of young Chinese and Taiwanese eels have been on the rise in recent years due to poor catches, Takashi Moriyama, chief of the Japanese eel import cooperative, said it is still questionable whether eels from more distant countries suit the Japanese palate.
"Since only small amounts of them are sold in Japan, (their low prices) have yet to provide a welcome relief (for consumers)," Moriyama said. "But it's a good thing they can be offered to consumers at low prices."