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In February 2007 the FWS announced in a 30-page report that listing American eels under the Endangered Species Act was "not warranted," in part because some eels have been found to spend their whole lives in salty estuaries. "The findings basically said that eels don't need freshwater habitat to survive," Watts said, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "That's like saying bald eagles don't need trees to nest in—they can use telephone poles." Because eels have always been ubiquitous and abundant, Watts says, no one seems to believe they could ever go extinct. "That's what they said about cod as recently as the 1990s, when stocks were collapsing. 'There's no way you can fish out cod—that's insane!' they said." He paused. "You can only beat an animal so hard before it finally just gives up."

Eels that survive dams may not survive Earth's top predator. The international trade, driven largely by Japan's appetite for grilled eel, called kabayaki, is a multibillion-dollar industry. In Japan, eel is believed to increase one's stamina in the heat, and Doyo Ushi No Hi, eel day, usually falls in late July. During that month in 2009 at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji seafood market, more than 111,500 pounds of fresh eel were sold. Eel is almost always eaten in eel-only restaurants, because of the difficulty in cleaning and cooking the fish. It is never served raw: The blood contains a neurotoxin that's neutralized when cooked or hot smoked. (A tiny amount of eel-blood serum injected into a rabbit causes instant convulsions and death.)

The eel is grilled on bamboo skewers over a hot wood fire, repeatedly dipped in water, and returned to the fire to steam the meat. Then it's glazed with a sauce of soy, mirin (sweet rice wine), and sugar and sprinkled with sansho, mountain pepper. This dish, most often a single eel split and splayed over a bed of rice in a black, lacquered box with a red interior, is called unaju. No part of the fish goes to waste. The liver is served in a soup, and the spine is deep-fried and eaten like a cracker. Though it may be part of Japan's food folklore, it is said that in Tokyo the eel is filleted along the back to avoid mimicking the samurai warrior's ritual knife-in-the-belly suicide. In Kyoto, where there were fewer samurai, it is filleted along the belly. Kyoto people say that the women in their city have such beautiful skin because they eat plenty of eel. Indeed, the meat is high in vitamins A and E, and because of its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, it has been found to help prevent type 2 diabetes.

An eel served in a restaurant in Manhattan may have hatched in the Atlantic Ocean, been netted in a river mouth in the Basque region of France, flown to Hong Kong, raised at a farm in nearby Fujian or Guangdong Provinces, cleaned, grilled, and packaged in factories near the farms, and finally flown to New York City. Readying eels for market usually involves catching babies—called glass eels because of their transparency—when they arrive in fresh water from the ocean and shipping them to warehouse-style farms in China for fattening up. The trade remains dependent on the capture of wild fish because no one has figured out how to reproduce eels profitably in captivity.

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