Thursday, November 26, 2015

Faux Unagi on the Menu for Conservation of Critically Endangered Eels

Venture hopes aquafarmed catfish, not eels, will beat the heat in 2016
Hirofumi Makihara, president of the Japan Namazu Production venture company, tries a slice of the company's catfish at a news conference in Osaka on Nov. 13. (Ayumi Shintaku)

The Asahi Shimbun  November 26, 2015 

OSAKA--A new aquafarming venture plans to ship 1,000 tons of artificially bred “namazu” catfish to the market as a substitute for eel, a traditional summer delicacy that is now endangered and in scarce supply.

Officials of Japan Namazu Production expect the catfish shipments to arrive before next year’s “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” (midsummer day of the ox).

They said the taste and texture of catfish are quite similar to those of “unagi” eels, which are commonly eaten to cope with the summer heat in Japan, particularly on the day.

At a news conference in Osaka on Nov. 13 to announce its inauguration, the company said a slice of aquafarmed catfish will be much cheaper than the increasingly expensive unagi.

The company, based in Higashi-Kushira, Kagoshima Prefecture, was set up in August by Masahiko Ariji, associate professor of aquaculture at Kinki University who has developed methods to cultivate catfish, and Hirofumi Makihara, president of the Makihara Youman eel aquafarming company in the prefecture.

Japan Namazu Production will provide know-how on cultivating catfish to aquafarming companies around Japan. It will buy up the aquafarmers’ fish and ship them to trading companies and retailers through processing and distribution firms.

Researchers at Kinki University have developed catfish that achieve the taste of unagi eels. (Provided by Kinki University)

Around 20 companies have contacted Japan Namazu Production about possible business tie-ups.

Through mass-production of catfish, the company aims to ship the products at a price of 1,000 yen ($8) or less per kilogram. The company officials said they hope the retail price for a 250-gram slice of unagi-like catfish will be reduced to less than 1,000 yen.

Japanese eels were placed on the red list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in June last year.

Overfishing of young eels is blamed for the sharp plunge in the eel population, as well as its soaring wholesale price, which often exceeds 4,000 yen per kilogram--or about five eels.

Aquaculture researchers at Kinki University and elsewhere are working to produce quality catfish that achieve the taste of unagi by improving fish feed and other cultivation methods.