A taste for eel – The Edge Review


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The beach at Pelabuhan Ratu (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The beach at Pelabuhan Ratu (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Indonesia looks to meet Japanese demand

PELABUHAN RATU – Eel has long been a mystery to man. More than two thousand years ago, Greek polymath Aristotle speculated that eel emerged from the earth, the unlikely scion of some even more unlikely animal-earth alchemy.

The serpentine fish were an enigma for a long time after the heyday of Greek philosophy had passed. It took until the 19th century before scientists put 2 and 2 together and realized that the tiny, glossy wrigglers we now know as elvers, or glass eel, were not a separate species to their snake-like adults but in fact their delicate young.

And it was only in the last few years that scientists figured out that the Japanese freshwater eel are born in the Pacific Ocean near the world’s deepest underwater trench, from where they navigate their way to land and upriver in Japan, thousands of kilometers away.

Such mysteries mean that scientists and conservations are struggling to find ways to to revive eel numbers as numbers decline due to overfishing.

In June 2014, the Japanese freshwater eel – known to foodies as unagi – was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of endangered species. Eel numbers declined by 90 per cent in the past three decades due to overfishing and damage to habitat.

But Japanese consumers don’t want to to stop eating unagi, which is typically grilled and basted with a sweet, dark sauce and then served with white rice.

Indonesia is seeing a gap in the market in Japan, the world’s biggest consumer of eel – eating around 70 per cent of the global catch. Unagi is especially popular during the Japanese summer when the vitamin-rich eel offers replenishment from the draining heat.

Europe’s eels, previously an alternative for Japanese foodies, are also listed as endangered, partly as not enough is known about how that species of eel survives in the ocean before making its way to fresh water

A recent research paper into the sector published by Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia noted the decline in numbers of Japanese and European eel.

“As a consequence,” the researchers noted, “tropical eels become important eel nowadays in the market.”

The upshot for Indonesia, according to Toni Ruchimat, who is Director of Fisheries Resources at Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, is that the vast archipelago could quickly double its current eel exports.

“Collection of data and research information shown that there are opportunities for Indonesia to increase industries capacity which include eels fishing, eels culture as well as eels processing industries,” Mr Ruchimat said in a telephone interview.

On a rain-swept beach on Java’s southwest coast, the town of Pelabuhan Ratu is the heart of Indonesia’s nascent eel industry.

At night, dozens of fishermen to try net the tiny, almost translucent elvers. They’re hard to spot in the shimmering waters, and hard to catch – the men hang lamps over the waters to attract the young fish to where they stand, poised with nets in hand.

Japanese national Ishitani Hisayasi set up PT Jawa Suisan Indah, Indonesia’s first first eel farm, in Pelabahun Ratu in 2009 – likely making the chain-smoking septugenarian best placed to assess the prospects for the country’s eel sector.

Tracing an index finger around a map of the vast Indonesian archipelago, Ishitani said that the waters off the south of Indonesia are rich in eel suitable for Japanese-style dishes. “Now there are Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese setting up eel farm here,” Ishitani said. “There is a lot of interest in farming eel.”

Agus Sujana, an eel farmer from east Java, said that he hopes to expand his business as demand grows. “I hope there are investors who want to give capital to me that there is a mutually beneficial cooperation, and I can be more advanced and developed in this eel aquaculture,” Mr. Agus said.

Oktavianto Prastyo Darmono, an academic at Bogor Agricultural University who researches Indonesia’s marine life, said that the country typically has has neither eaten nor traded in eel in the past.

“In Indonesia, the eel is still a mystery. the public does not know much about the potential [of] eel,” Oktavianto said.

Scouring Jakarta’s growing numbers of Japanese restaurants, eel is sometimes on, sometimes off the menu. At restaurants in central Jakarta, eel dishes such as unadon cost around 150,000 rupiah (US$12) – out of reach for most people in a country where the average income per head is US$3,475 per annum.

Then again, if eel’s rumored libidinal benefits are real, then perhaps more Indonesians will try out some swimming Viagra, in turning bringing price come down if more locally-sourced eel becomes available. ‘It is good for health, good for fertility, for man especially,” giggled Iriana, a customer at the Sao Don Japanese restaurant in Kuningan, a well-to-do neighborhood in Jakarta.

But there are concerns that as Indonesia’s eel economy grows, local eel could suffer similar levels of depletion that have left temperate eels endangered.

Dr. Matthew Gollock, the IUCN’s leading eel specialist, wrote in an email to TER that tropical eel need to be better understood if they are not to suffer the same fate as northerly counterparts.

“What became clear from our assessments was that tropical species were far less well understood compared to temperate species such as the European, American and Japanese eels,” Dr. Gollock said.

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