Marine Life is Just Food: Japan’s View on the Value of Seafood

Completely surrounded by sea, Japan has a rich culture surrounding seafood. Much of the cuisine revolves around a broad variety of marine organisms that are not just limited to fish, but also include shellfish, crustaceans, cephalopods, and importantly, seaweed. Seafood forms the backbone of the Japanese food supply as it is eaten in vast quantities and processed in a myriad of ways. Whether it may be for the globally famous sushi or konbu (kelp stock), seafood can be found everywhere in daily life.

But this dependency on sea life comes at a heavy price – overfishing has become a major but neglected issue. Japan is facing multiple problems, including threats regarding its decreasing populations of marine organisms. Some victims include the Pacific Bluefin, which is consumed by Japan the most and “has caused “great frustration” with its failure to abide by catch quotas intended to save the species from commercial extinction.” 

As seen in the graph above, the decline in wild catch is rapidly falling. Despite the declining numbers of different species, Japan still has not instigated any major changes to its aquaculture practices. To makes matters worse, environmental issues are another area of concern; habitat loss has forced many species to disappear. 

One of the most concerned animals is the unagi or freshwater eel, which has both cultural, historical, and social significance. The eel is a popular fish, often grilled and served over rice, which is one of Japan’s most famous and ancient dishes. There is even a day dedicated to the fish on the 20th of July, where it is sold on a national scale and people celebrate by eating the eel in the aforementioned style. 

However, the eel is facing grave danger as it has been placed on the International Endangered Species List. Things prove to be more perilous for the eel as it is also facing “habitat damage and overfishing,” further placing the species under immense pressure. Although the eel is clearly in danger of extinction, not much is discussed about its troubling situation in the public. It is bizarre that it has not even been spotlighted by the media; which supposedly has the power to call for more attention and action to prevent its demise. What is behind this seemingly uninterested social reaction?

The answer perhaps lies in Japan’s tendency to view marine or aquatic life only as food. It is common to see TV programs that feature fish and thoroughly discuss them in terms of taste and preparation. Even in aquariums, many visitors often joke about or comment on whether the exhibited species are edible or not. Overall, Japan still lags behind other countries when it comes to environmental conservation. This can be seen by the minimal number of programs, associations, or laws that protect its marine life. 

Another case that shines light on Japan’s disinterest in saving the eel is the country’s attitude towards whaling. For many years, Japan has been the subject of angry protests and debates regarding its killings of whales. When confronted about its whaling policies, the Japanese government has often reasoned that it is for the purpose of “scientific research,” but this argument has been “ruled [by the ICJ] that there was no scientific case for Japan's programme of "lethal research".” Furthermore, it is often ignored that it is, like the freshwater eel, in threat of extinction. 

What can be done to halt this destructive process? Some possible measures include substitution, that is, replacing seafood with sustainable, eco-friendly choices such as chicken. Because the majority of fish consumed by the Japanese are predatory, such as the tuna, they tend to accumulate harmful substances like Mercury by being at the top of the food chain. Hence, health is a logical reason to limit the intake of fish. Another is to raise awareness, especially by educating the public and encourage conservational activities. It is also crucial to better the environment by reducing pollution, eliminating invasive species, and preventing habitat destruction, which is definitely applicable to the eel for dams have destroyed its home grounds.

Last but not least, celebrations such as the previously mentioned Eel day (7/20) should be stopped. In other words, events that encourage eating a specific animal, particularly one that is endangered, should be banned – such activities reduce animals to nothing more than food. It is necessary to understand that the food we eat are living beings. Hopefully Japan will come to value its eel and other marine organisms not just for consumption, but also for ethical and environmental reasons. Then, it will be perfectly reasonable to enjoy a box of traditional unagi over a bed of piping hot rice.