Unadon (鰻丼), grilled or steamed freshwater eel covered in a sweet soy based sauce and served on top of a bowl of rice, is a staple in restaurants across Japan in the hot and humid summer months. The high protein, calcium and Vitamin A rich dish is believed to provide diners with the stamina they need to overcome heat-induced weariness and give them that extra dose of genki. The dish is so popular that there is a special day for eating it, July 19, “doyo no ushi no hi” (the midsummer day of the Ox). Millions of bowls are sold each year, but recent actions by the Environment and Fishing Ministries of Japan may signal a change to this custom.
The number of these eels are dwindling low enough to prompt the Environment Ministry to put them on its endangered “red” list. Some prefectures have reported numbers to the Fishing Ministry indicating a four-decade low in catches. Overfishing, loss of habitat to concrete river-banks and possible ocean water condition changes have all contributed to the low catch. If current trends continue, the fish could face extinction.
Young eels are caught each year between December and April and then bred by fish farmers. The combined catch this December and January harvested only 32.19 kilograms, the lowest amount for the two-month period since 1971. In 2011, only 2.2 tons of the eel sold were bred in Japan, the rest were imported from China and Taiwan.
These alarmingly low numbers have prompted officials to re-examine eel consumption. Consumers worry that prices may increase. The spring harvest may help numbers level off, but if they remain low, the Unadon may be a scarce treat this summer.