feng sushi takes eel off the menu

POSTED 18 May 2011 IN Wellbeing

Grilled eel, better known as unagi in Japanese cuisine, remains a delicate dish. The use of unagi in Japan goes back to the Edo period (1603-1868) when there was an abundant supply of it in Tokyo’s waters. As eel is cooked, unlike much sushi fish which is eaten raw, its preparation has become the domain of special unagi chefs who are revered for their skills.

Up until recently we were serving unagi, and as a restaurant that prides itself on its ethical and sustainable credentials, we were serving the most sustainable eel available. Following discussions with the Sustainable Eel Group and fish2fork, we have made the decision to remove all eel dishes from our menu until further notice.

The reason? Eel stocks around the world have fallen dramatically. The Zoological Society of London believes that numbers have crashed by as much as 97%. At the beginning of the last century, stocks in the Thames were so plentiful that eel was the staple diet of London’s poor cockneys, traditionally served with mashed potatoes and liquor made from the juice the eels were stewed in, as illustrated by the following quote.

“London from one end to the other teems and steams with eels, alive and stewed; turn where you will hot eels are everywhere smoking away” (D. Badham, 1853).

Today, eels have become so desirable that they are commonly known as ‘white gold’, owing to the money that can be earned selling diminishing stock to an increasing Asian market. The trouble is, no one knows why the stocks are so depleted. The quality of Thames water, for instance, has improved dramatically over the years and has seen other fish, such as trout and salmon thrive; eel stocks, however, have continued to decline. This pattern is repeated across Europe and conservationists are at a loss as to the reason – it could be due to over fishing, pollution, a rise in temperature, a change in currents or perhaps the loss of part of the eel’s diet and part of the problem isn’t helped by the fact that the life cycle of the eel itself is not entirely understood.

The eel is a mysterious creature. It is believed that it starts life in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic, 5,000 kilometres from British shores. Once the larvae hatch the young eels, known as glass eels owing to their transparency, make the long and arduous journey to the shores of Europe where they find their way into fresh water rivers such as the Thames, when they become known as elvers. Here they feed and grow and, when they are ready to spawn, they try to get back to the Sargasso to lay their eggs. The problem could lie along any part of this dangerous journey.

One of the most serious problems is the fact that the supply of baby eels has virtually ceased as so many are being taken out of the sea once they reach the Bay of Biscay. This is when they are in their glass eel phase and it is this eel that is most popular in Asia. According to Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group “It is believed that these large scale exports to Asia are undermining the European Eel Recovery Programme. The stocks that the French are plundering are crucial for restocking rivers and lakes in other countries, but are being removed before they get a chance to carry on their journey.”

Unfortunately, as stocks continue to shrink, prices rise exponentially and some countries have been reluctant to reduce fishing when profits are so eye-wateringly high. The number of fisheries has increased to cope with demand but mortality rates remain high with intensive fishing methods. It is widely believed by conservationists that the only way to reduce mortality is to adopt environmentally sensitive fishing methods.

The good news is that the Sustainable Eel Group – drawn from conservationists, scientists, the fishing industry and policy-makers – is looking for a solution, including opening up blocked migratory paths and creating new habitats as well as restocking programmes. They are also about to introduce a ‘standard’ that will be given to sustainable eel fisheries so that eel can be eaten and enjoyed again – so long as it’s sourced from a supplier that has been assessed and meets the standard. The SEG is going to be launching its standard on 19th May at Fishmongers Hall.

We’ll be closely following this one and as soon as we are assured that the eel we’re buying meets the SEG standard, we’ll be putting it back on our menu.