Eel industry slipping away?

25 Jul

Hi blog.

As we hit mid-summer, suddenly maximum temperatures in Eastern Japan dropped below 30℃ and rainy days continued.  The media has been largely preoccupied with terrorism, various elections (somehow paying more attention to the antics of the Americans rather than the policies of their own – sometimes nefarious – electoral candidates) and the Olympics (I want to throw my TV away during Olympic season)  Today, however, this rather long but interesting article appeared on my news feed.

From the Japan Times

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2016/07/23/food/eel-industry-slippery-slope-extinction/#.V5XJnfmLTIW

Is the eel industry on the slippery slope to extinction?

Dwindling domestic population threatens a centuries-old tradition

BY MARK JARNES

SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES

 JUL 23, 2016

As we approach the end of July, supermarkets nationwide are beginning to stock up on one of the nation’s much-loved summer fish: freshwater eel.

In recent years, however, the cost of eel has risen sharply and consumers are now facing the upcoming Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Day of the Ox, a day dedicated to eel consumption) on July 30 in the knowledge that they’ll be expected to pay through the nose for a slab of the freshwater fish.

Rampant overfishing and the scientific community’s overall lack of knowledge on the biology of eel has left the industry in a crisis. The dwindling domestic eel population has consequently pushed up prices and forced a number of specialist eel restaurants to close. So scarce is the fish in restaurants these days that it’s almost considered to be something of a luxury item.

“I think that the soaring eel prices are truly unfortunate,” says Torami Murakami, chairman of the All Japan Association for Sustainable Eel Aquaculture. “If prices continue to stay at this level, an important part of Japanese food culture will remain out of consumers’ reach.”

Murakami himself enjoys packing away what has become a delicacy, but realizes that increasing prices are making it more difficult for eel to remain on dining tables across the country.

“Eel has been loved in Japan for millennia,” Murakami says. “It’s crucial that we continue this ancient Japanese food culture.”

The eating of freshwater eel — or unagi — is a culinary romance that has lasted more than 5,000 years. Indeed, eel bones have been found in shell mounds dating back to the Jomon Period, which lasted from around 10,000 B.C. to 200 B.C.

Today, eel is typically eaten kabayaki style, in which the fish is split down the belly, gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into fillets, skewered and dipped in a sweetened combination of soy sauce and mirin before being broiled on a grill.

Eel kabayaki is often served on top of a bowl of rice (unadon), while a more extravagant form of this dish (unaju) is placed inside tiered lacquered boxes.

The origins of Doyo no Ushi no Hi extend back as far as the Edo Period, when an eel restaurant owner sought the advice of a prominent inventor called Hiraga Gennai about the prospect of boosting the summer sales of his freshwater fish.

Gennai instructed the restaurant owner to hang a banner in front of his shop that promoted Ushi no Hi and encouraged customers to order dishes that began with the letter “u.” Sales skyrocketed and other eel restaurants soon jumped on the bandwagon, leading to an interest in Doyo no Ushi no Hi that continues today.

Boom to bust

Although Japan has a long history of eel consumption, fishermen only started grilling the freshwater fish some time during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The only seasoning available at the time was salt, miso or vinegar. This primitive form of kabayaki became the basis for what we know and love today.

Eel consumption increased during the “economic miracle” of the decades that followed World War II. Consumers’ enhanced purchasing power, easy-to-eat fillets in modern packaging and aggressive price wars triggered by an increase in imports led to high demand.

As a result of the growing popularity of eel both domestically and abroad, catches have drastically declined in recent years. According to a survey compiled in 2015 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the average annual catch of young eel has dropped from more than 200 tons in the mid-1960s to just 20 tons in the 1980s and 1990s. Catches declined further over the 2010s, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to add the freshwater fish to its “red list” of endangered species in June 2014.

Consequently, the majority of eel that makes it onto dining tables nationwide has been imported from China and Taiwan since the 1990s. According to the 2015 fisheries ministry survey, eel imports now account for approximately 60 percent of the domestic eel supply, with a large quantity of the fish being processed into kabayaki in China and shipped to Japan in a ready-to-cook form.

According to another survey released this month by the fisheries ministry, the market price of baby eel — also known as elvers or glass eels — is currently ¥1,820,000 per kilogram. By contrast, the market price of baby eel was ¥160,000 per kilogram In 2003, less than 10 percent of the existing price.

“We want to effectively manage eel resources and continue the country’s culinary heritage,” Murakami says. “We aim to limit the number of glass eels put into lakes in the region to 70 percent in a bid to allow for the perpetual conservation of eel reserves.”

When trying to pinpoint reasons for the declining volume of eel catches, it is important to keep in mind that many aspects relating to an eel’s biology remain unclear. That said, researchers believe that factors such as changes in the ocean environment, habitat degradation and overfishing haven’t helped sustain eel numbers.

Modern-day aquaculture techniques alone aren’t sufficient to restore eel stocks largely because the world’s current knowledge of eels is surprisingly limited — not enough is yet known about the lifestyle of the freshwater fish to breed them in captivity.

As a result, grass eels are caught in the wild and then placed into ponds to be raised for a period lasting between six and 18 months. During this time, eels develop from a miniscule 0.2 of a gram to adults weighing up to 300 grams each. They are then graded into different size categories and transported to processing plants and restaurants for market consumption.

The race to successfully breed eels in farms is an ongoing one, but Murakami and his team at the All Japan Association for Sustainable Eel Aquaculture are hopeful.

“We need to stabilize the breeding process of eels,” he says. “We are getting close to a large-scale implementation of artificial hatching. If we can be successful with that then I believe that eel numbers can return to normal levels.”

A family business

Amid this glimmer of hope, one wonders how the steady decline in eel resources has affected restaurateurs and their customers.

Shohei Hashimoto of Unagi Hashimoto speaks frankly about the financial pressure he has faced in recent times. “Prices have gone up, especially over the past four or five years.” he says. “Accordingly, the number of customers has dropped.”

This year, Hashimoto became the fourth in a line of Hashimotos to take the reins of the family business after serving for over a decade of training under his father’s wing. The two-story restaurant in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district has been in business since 1947 and, as with previous generations, the restaurant will slowly undergo changes under new management — Hashimoto believes the eel industry is in need of an image change.

“I’m 37, and the person who runs the organic eel farm that we buy our produce from is around the same age as me, so we have similar views toward farming and distribution,” Hashimoto says. “He was the first farmer that has reached out to restaurants as a brand. If you go to supermarkets and eateries, you’ll see the name of the farmers on the packages, but the eel business is still old-fashioned, so consumers don’t really have an idea of where the eels come from and who farms them. I think this needs to change.”

True to his word, the newly updated Unagi Hashimoto website describes in detail where the restaurant sources its eels. The website also boasts of a “modern classic” approach to unagi culture.

“Since I am the fourth in a line of Hashimotos, there is a lot to take on and pass on,” he says. “However, the world is moving forward at an incredible pace and I think that we need to expand our focus as a restaurant. Eels are a freshwater fish, so I think that there is a lot of potential in also trying to serve other such fish at a high level of quality in order to emphasize the taste of eel.”

Hashimoto’s menu reflects this ethos. There is toriju (grilled chicken on rice) and a course dinner at Unagi Hashimoto, which will cost between ¥8,500 and ¥11,000, includes sashimi and a freshwater-fish bowl.

However, Hashimoto is not abandoning all outmoded cooking methods. He plans to bring back charcoal to his grills, instead of the electric ones that his restaurant now uses.

“It’s not a big difference, but the difference is clear,” he says, smiling.

Considering the excellent quality of their dishes, lunches are more reasonable at Unagi Hashimoto, with their eel-only menu totaling ¥1,620.

“We want to target businessmen and women during their lunch hours, so we have decided to serve a half-cut of kabayaki to make it more affordable for them to come in without burning a hole in their pockets,” Hashimoto says. “We used to have more options for lunch. But with eel stocks decreasing, prices increasing and the number of eel chefs declining, we decided to keep only what we thought were the best options.”

When asked if he is hopeful of an increase in catches and a consequent decrease in costs that should lead to more customers coming in through his doors, Hashimoto responds cautiously.

“2015 may see a slight increase in eels catches,” he says, “but no one knows what will happen in years to come.”

Danzo Yamamoto, owner of an eel kushiyaki (grilled skewered food) restaurant called Ganso Unatetsu in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, is not optimistic of what the future holds for his family-run establishment.

“We had to raise our prices four years ago, when the catch was low, and this year is looking to be almost as bad,” he says. “It’s already summer, so I’m not sure that we can raise the prices at this point in the year.”

Unlike Unagi Hashimoto, Ganso Unatetsu offers an all-eel menu, a tradition that has been passed down to Yamamoto since his grandfather started the restaurant in 1957.

In contrast with other kushiyaki restaurants, which also serve yakitori chicken skewers, Ganso Unatetsu only serves eel, with individual skewers ranging in price from ¥130 to ¥260. However, Yamamoto realizes that, at least in terms of revenue, this generation-crossing tradition is not enough to keep the shutters from closing.

“Compared to many other places (nationwide) that serve eel as unaju, our main revenue comes from grilled skewers,” he says, explaining how he has managed to stay afloat so far. “We also use the entire eel, from the head to the innards to the fins and tail. That’s something that my grandfather came up with when the restaurant was established.”

As innards and fins are cheaper than the softer and fluffier kabayaki, this is a clever — and delicious — attempt at branding and cost-cutting. But Yamamoto says that offering an eel all-star menu simply isn’t quite enough to cut it these days.

“A lot of our sales also comes from serving alcohol, especially beer,” he says. “Since we are a kushiyaki restaurant, we decided to go with anizakaya (Japanese pub) atmosphere.”

Located in close proximity to Shibuya Station and surrounded by izakaya, it appears that this was a wise business maneuver. When this interview came to a close at 6:30 p.m., a few salarymen had already formed a line outside of the packed restaurant. Still, Yamamoto remains skeptical.

“To be honest, in my next life I don’t think I’d choose to be in the eel business,” he says. “And unless we can see an increase in production and a decrease in costs, I wouldn’t really want my son to go into it either. I’d worry too much.”


Culinary concepts

CHINATSU YAJIMA

Consumption history

The consumption of freshwater eel in Japan dates back to the Jomon Period (10,000 B.C.-200 B.C.). In modern times, eel is typically eatenkabayaki style, in which the fish is split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into fillets, skewered and dipped in a sweetened combination of soy sauce and mirin before being broiled on a grill. However, it was traditionally marinated with salt, vinegar, and either miso or red peppers before being boiled.

Filleting styles

In the Kanto region, eels are sliced open down the back of the animal and grilled unglazed. In the Kansai region, however, eels are split down the belly. The warrior class in Kanto considered gutting an eel via the belly to be bad luck, as it was associated with seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment).

Pepper pairing

Japanese peppers (sansho) are believed to be effective in regulating the temperature of our internal organs, which aids digestion. The peppers are also believed to help digest the fatty parts of an eel’s body.

Freshwater vs. saltwater

Unagi is a freshwater eel, whereas anago (conger) is a saltwater variety. Anago is sometimes consumed as a cheaper alternative to unagi. Unagi and anago have a similar taste, but the freshwater fish has higher fat content compared to its saltwater cousin.

Nutritious value

Eels contain multiple vitamins — vitamin A, B1, B2, D and E — as well as DHA and EPA (deficiencies that correlate with learning and memory deficits) and minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc. Eel consumption is believed to help prevent high blood pressure, strokes and even the loss of vision.


Enigmatic creatures

CHINATSU YAJIMA

Male majority

The sex ratio for freshwater eels caught in the wild is nearly equal. However, eels that are raised in farms for consumption are predominantly males. Genetically, some varieties of fish change sex as a result of environmental factors. For instance, researchers have shown that female fish artificially reared in waters that are kept at a high temperature during the larval stage can become male. More research is needed on the higher incidence of farmed male eels, but there seems to be a correlation between high-density breeding and male bias.

Long life span

The oldest freshwater eel ever recorded in an aquarium lived to be 80 years years. As eels typically die after spawning, reproductive suppression could help to extend an animal’s life span. Also, an eel in an aquarium reportedly survived without eating food for 22 months.

Poisonous blood

Eels are not typically served as sashimi because their blood contains ichthyotoxin, which causes symptoms such as respiratory distress and nausea. Since the poison is proteinaceous, cooking eel meat destroys the toxin. This isn’t to say, however, that eel sashimi is never consumed in Japan. Some specialist chefs are able to drain the blood perfectly and marinate the meat with vinegar.

Slippery slime

The slime on eels’ bodies helps preserve the animal’s moisture as well as cutaneous respiration. The slime is produced by the secretion of glycosylated proteins such as mucin and mucoprotein. It also serves to control the osmotic pressure between the external environment and inside their bodies.

Softer side

Eels are soft when consumed after being heated. When eaten raw, eels can be as hard as rubber. Eel meat contains collagen and heat helps to liquefy it to gelatin.

Article ends.

Again, we are left in a situation where economics dictates environmental policy.   No, sorry, wrong.

The article doesn’t mention that other elvers of other eel species – notably European and Australian eel – are also raised in Japan to help make up for shortages.  Unfortunately, some of these eels have found their way back into the wild.  (Eels are notorious escape artists)  This may have a negative impact on the Japanese eel.

 

It’s time people stopped seeing fish as a bottomless resource to be tapped.

The Little Prince and the Big Snake

2 Jul

Hi blog.

Snakes top Wild in Japan’s search item hits, so it stands to reason that the more posts about snakes I write, the more hits I get.

However, one does not simply walk into material for writing serpentine-themed posts.  Well, not usually.

I was hit with a question just recently – “What’s the difference between a daija and an uwabami?”

It seems that Madoka was particularly confused as to why the boa constrictor from The Little Prince was rendered uwabami in the Japanese translation she was reading.

Depending on the Japanese edition, this may or may not be an uwabami.

This will take a while to explain, but bear with me.

Daija (大蛇) literally translates as “big snake” and has come to mean large snakes, both in reality – particularly the large pythons and anacondas – and fiction.  This is confused, however, by the word orochi – also written 大蛇 – which specifically refers to the giant snakes from mythology and folklore.

Uwabami (蟒蛇) also has two meanings.  One refers to snakes of the family boidae – the boas, most famously the boa constrictor.  The other is an older word pertaining to those aforementioned mythological giant snakes.

Saint-Exupéry specifically states that his “hat” picture is a boa snake (“serpent boa”).  So it seems that the translator of Madoka’s particular edition of The Little Prince decided to use a more folklore-sounding translation.

The famous boa digesting an elephant picture. Some Japanese versions translate it literally as “big snake”, use the scientific “boa” or opt for uwabami.

I was also asked why uwabami has also come to mean a heavy drinker.  I answered that, as a guess, I imagined it was either because large snakes are (in)famous for swallowing large prey whole, or perhaps because of the ancient association of giant snakes with sake, as in the myth of Susanoo tricking the Yamata no Orochi into drinking eight barrels of sake.

Then Susanoo no Mikoto descended from Heaven and proceeded to the head-waters of the River Hi, in the province of Idzumo. At this time he heard a sound of weeping at the head-waters of the river, and he went in search of the sound. He found there an old man and an old woman. Between them was set a young girl, whom they were caressing and lamenting over. Susanoo no Mikoto asked them, saying:-“Who are ye, and why do ye lament thus?” The answer was:-“I am an Earthly Deity, and my name is Ashi-nadzuchi. My wife’s name is Te-nadzuchi. This girl is our daughter, and her name is Kushi-nada-hime. The reason of our weeping is that formerly we had eight children, daughters. But they have been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent and now the time approaches for this girl to be devoured. There is no means of escape for her, and therefore do we grieve.” Sosa no wo no Mikoto said: “If that is so, wilt thou give me thy daughter?” He replied, and said: “I will comply with thy behest and give her to thee.” Therefore Sosa no wo no Mikoto on the spot changed Kushi-nada-hime into a many-toothed close-comb which he stuck in the august knot of his hair. Then he made Ashi-nadzuchi and Te-nadzuchi to brew eight-fold sake, to make eight cupboards, in each of them to set a tub filled with sake, and so to await its coming. When the time came, the serpent actually appeared. It had an eight-forked head and an eight-forked tail; its eyes were red, like the winter-cherry; and on its back firs and cypresses were growing. As it crawled it extended over a space of eight hills and eight valleys. Now when it came and found the sake, each head drank up one tub, and it became drunken and fell asleep. Then Susanoo no Mikoto drew the ten-span sword which he wore, and chopped the serpent into small pieces. When he came to the tail, the edge of his sword was slightly notched, and he therefore split open the tail and examined it. In the inside there was a sword. This is the sword which is called Kusa-nagi no tsurugi.

From the Nihon Shoki, translated by W.G. Aston, 1896

It turns out that both of these are given as probable explanations!

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, 1870s by Toyohara Chikanobu. Here it has been given a more dragon-like appearance.

 

Kid Living the Dream

26 Jun

Hi Blog.

This one came up on my news feed today.  A kid living the dream.  Article from the Japan Times.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/06/25/national/science-health/fossilized-mammal-skeleton-from-the-dinosaur-era-found-in-central-japan/#.V2-HXbiLTIV

Fossilized mammal skeleton from the dinosaur era found in central Japan

JUN 25, 2016

The partial remains of a fossilized skeleton of a herbivorous mammal has been discovered in a layer of earth from the Lower Cretaceous, about 120 million years ago, in Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture, researchers announced Saturday.

It is rare that an entire fossil of a mammal from the era of the dinosaurs is found, according to Fukui Prefectural University and the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum.

The skeleton was discovered in June 2014 by Kakeru Funato, then an elementary school student in the fourth grade, who was attending a fossil excavation event in the Katsuyama Dinosaur Forest Park.

A computerized tomography examination by the university and the museum determined that it was the skeleton of a small grass-eating mammal from an extinct group called Multituberculata, which had similar characteristics to Rodentia.

“A fossil skeleton of a Multituberculata mammal is very rare,” Kazunori Miyata, associate professor of Fukui Prefectural University, said. “It will serve as a very important sample that helps unravel the diversification and evolution of Multituberculata mammals.”

The animal is estimated to have had a body length of about 13 centimeters when it was alive, according to the museum and the university. The portion of the well-preserved fossil is 5 centimeters long, 2.6 cm wide and 1.3 cm in height.

Judging from its teeth and body size, it might be a species that had never been discovered before, the researchers said.

In the Katsuyama park, rocks are brought in from an excavation site in the city so the general public, including children, can experience what it is like to be a paleontologist. Funato, the 11-year-old boy from the city of Gifu, took part in the event with other members of his family.

He discovered the rare find after cracking into a rock.

“When I found it, I thought it might be a discovery of a sort,” he said. “But I’m astonished to learn it was an important enough fossil to make news.”

Funato came to like dinosaurs after looking at a picture book while he was in kindergarten.

Article ends.

Well done, Funato.  Keep living the dream.

 

Radically Fishy – An Adventure in Ideograms

12 Jun

Hi blog.

The rainy season has arrived, so be prepared to put up with me ranting about the locals’ inability to cope with the heat and humidity.

Recent news has been dominated with the story of Yamato Tonooka, whose parents left him in the forest for a few minutes as punishment, only to have him disappear and not be found for nearly a week.  The media have been tripping over themselves to bring us the exclusive reports, which now include close-up shots of the tap he drank from…

This post comes from an idea floating around inside my head for a few years but was crystallised by a school lunch, of all things.

Lunch included Japanese Spanish mackerel (“So is it Japanese or Spanish?  Make up your mind!”), which is known in the vernacular as sawara and written 鰆.  Astute readers might recognise the radical as the character for fish (魚) combined with the character for spring (春).  This fish always seems a little dry, and I quipped that since we are now in summer, it is out of season.

Time to look at some characters with the fish radical.  Let’s keep this simple and go by stroke number.

The modern character for fish.

The first one combines fish with the element for fortune telling (占) to make 鮎.  Avid readers may recognise it as ayu or sweetfish, although it originally referred to the catfish – namazu – now written 鯰.

Next is one you might be able to guess.  If we combine fish with an older version of the character for flat (平) – which I can’t reproduce here due to unicode issues – we get 鮃, read as hirame.  Hmm, a flat fish…  I hope you’re not floundering for an answer.  The answer is, of course, the olive flounder, bastard halibut or Japanese halibut.

The fish with the package (包) is a little confusing.  I’m pretty good with the fish characters – more than a match for a typical Japanese adult – but 鮑 had me stumped.  One reason is because it is not a fish at all – it is abalone!  The locals know it as awabi.

Moving along to another season, let’s look at the fish with winter (冬), read as konoshiro.  Actually, this character – one of several used for the fish – is misleading.  The answer is the dotted gizzard shad, konoshiro gizzard shad, or spotted sardine, which is actually in season in autumn.

The fish with the rock (石) makes sense.  The adults of this family of fish – known locally as kajika (鮖) – apparently lack swim bladders, and so sink when they stop swimming.  It is the sculpin, a large family of fish which inhabit a variety of freshwater and marine environments.  Interestingly enough, another character is also used for this fish.  This character uses fish combined with autumn (秋) to make 鰍, although in the original Chinese it referred to the weather loach.  The weather loach or weatherfish  – dojo in Japanese –  is now typically written as 鰌.

Sometimes the meanings of the parts of the characters is not immediately clear.  The next two are prime examples of this.  The first combines fish with the character for “to be” (有), but in this case it is to represent a fish that swims freely.  The Japanese name for the fish is said to be a corruption of meguro (“black eyes”) and is pronounced maguro (鮪).  The fish in question is the tuna.  Curiously, the Japanese have taken to using the word tsuna (a corruption of the English tuna) to refer to canned tuna…

My other example is fish combined with a character referring to a jade tablet (圭), but taken to mean a triangular shape, or possibly a good shape.  The resulting character is (鮭), referring to salmon.  The Japanese name for the fish is sake, which may have its roots in the Ainu language.  Closely related fish, which may be known as either salmon or trout in English are sold under the name saamon, a corruption of the English salmon.

How about a fish that includes the element for switch, cross over, or interact with (交)?  The resulting character becomes 鮫, and should be somewhat familiar to regular followers.  That’s right, it’s same, meaning shark.  Apparently, the shark’s twisting movements give rise to that character.  The Japanese name same may be of Ainu origin.

Our next fish has the character for village, and also for an old measure of distance (里).  I imagined that the right side referred to the fishes’ length or possibly the distance they swam, but it turns out that it is also a reference to sinews.  The resulting 鯉 is read koi, meaning carp.

We’ve already had one example of the fish radical meaning something other than a fish, so let’s finish off with three more.

The fish radical combined with 京, which typically means capital city but also has the meaning one quintillion or 1016 – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 – to make the character 鯨.  The ridiculously high number refers to the creature’s size.  That’s right, the character is kujira, and means whale.

Next, let’s combine the fish with a tiger (虎).  This one (鯱) shouldn’t be too hard to guess if I told you to think of a sea creature with the ferocity of a tiger.  The name is shachi, and it refers to the killer whale.  The same characters may also refer to the fanciful creature found on the roofs of castles, often known as shachihoko.

Shachihoko on the roof of Nagoya Castle. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Shachihoko from the Wakansansaizue. Here it is actually written as 魚虎 and not 鯱. Interestingly, it is the second-last entry under “scaly marine fish. Mermaid is last!

Our final ideogram for this post is fish with a character meaning to surprise (咢).  In this case, however, the surprise element is similar to the character for chin or jaw.  Again, followers of this blog might recognise the resulting character as 鰐, wani.  Originally meaning certain kinds of sharks, it has been changed to mean reptiles of the order crocodilia.

I hope you enjoyed this post, because there are more interesting fish-based kanji characters out there.

Original bone oracle script.

Bronze script character. You can clearly see the fish here.

Large seal script. It’s beginning to take shape. I can’t see the fish any more.

Small seal script. It only takes a little imagination to understand what character this is, but it looks almost nothing like the original.

The Hatching

29 May

Hi blog.

You may remember some months back I found the ootheca of a praying mantis.

Well, today we got the results!

Hello!

I was outside this afternoon when I noticed a tiny mantid on the fly screen wire.  I had glanced at the case in which I stored the ootheca this morning, but didn’t see any marked changes at that time.  

I quickly went over to the case and found at least two dozen baby mantids.

“And I shall name this one Robert…”

Time for a quick photo before releasing them – I hoped to disperse them over a wide area to reduce the chances of them cannibalising.

Cute, aren’t they?

Best of luck, my little hatchlings.

The Bee Killers

16 May

Hi blog.

This was one of my slap-the-forehead “What are you people thinking?  Were you thinking?” moments.

On May 11, a large (approximately 1000) swarm of honeybees settled on a building wall in the Takadanobaba area of Shinjuku, Tokyo.  None of the local news reports I’ve found have mentioned if the bees in question were native Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica)or European honeybees (Apis mellifera sp.), although I’m not aware of European honeybees having any negative effect on the environment.

Now, my response would be to call in an apiarist (that’s a beekeeper to regular folk) to remove (i.e. capture and relocate) the swarm.  But, no, the authorities responded by calling in the police and fire department to “remove” the swarm – i.e. spray it with pesticides and clean up the dead bees.

This hasn’t made its way into the English language press, but feel free to watch it in Japanese.

NHK: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20160511/k10010517131000.html

Nihon TV: http://www.news24.jp/articles/2016/05/11/07329885.html

My take:  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  The Ginza district has a thriving honey industry – there are fewer hornets in the metropolitan area – and I can’t see how spraying a swarm posed any less danger to the public (since bees are sensitive to chemical smells) than simply capturing the bulk of the bees and relocating them to a rooftop hive.

How about putting me in charge every now and then?

We Are The Invaders and Neuter Your Cats

10 May

Hi blog.

A couple of very different articles.

First, one from the BBC about dealing with raccoon dogs running feral in Sweden – too bad there is no Japanese language version of this to remind the locals that their native animals can be destructive outside their natural ecosystems.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36228601

The cute creature Sweden wants to wipe out

Raccoon dog in SwedenImage copyrightAlamy

They look cute and cuddly and are sometimes kept as pets – but raccoon dogs are a menace, threatening wildlife across Europe. Sweden is so worried about their impact that it has trained a team to hunt and kill the animals, with the unwitting help of creatures made to betray their mates.

It’s mid-April and on the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the ice covering the sea is still a metre thick.

It’s where Ludde Noren and Viktor Medstrom, two professional hunters from the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management have switched off their snowmobiles and are using GPS tracking equipment to try to detect signals of an unwelcome visitor.

The animal they are looking for is a raccoon dog, a fox-like creature native to East Asia that has a similar face to a raccoon but is a member of the canine family.

The beeps coming from the tracking equipment are weak, so it’s back on the snowmobiles to roar across the vast expanse of the frozen sea towards a small island.

Ludde Noren (left) and Per-Arne Ahlen, raccoon dog hunters, on snow tractors in northern Sweden
Image captionLudde Noren (left) and Per-Arne Ahlen hunting raccoon dogs

Per-Arne Ahlen who leads Sweden’s project to eradicate raccoon dogs, is with them too. He says the animals were first released in the European parts of the former Soviet Union by biologists as a source of fur.

“Economic success 80 years ago, today an ecological disaster,” he says.

An ecological disaster, he explains, because raccoon dogs feed on amphibians and ground-nesting birds in wetland areas.

“Amphibian species can go extinct in areas with a high raccoon dog population,” Ahlen says.

Along with the Arctic fox, they reproduce more quickly than any other canine species. A million are born every year in Finland, and there are thousands more in Germany. They have been sighted as far west as France and the Netherlands, Ahlen says.

Sweden’s plan to eradicate raccoon dogs began a decade ago, when they were first spotted in the far north of the country – now the animals are hunted to reduce the threat to biodiversity.

Some of the work is done from an office in Lulea, a city 900km (560 miles) north of the capital Stockholm. The staff there receive thousands of sightings from members of the public every year, which are then followed up by field staff.

There are also cameras on the main routes between Sweden and Finland which can detect raccoon dogs as they arrive in the country.

Map showing Sweden and Finland, with Lulea and the Gulf of Bothnia marked out
Image copyright Bc

And from their computers they are able to track the so-called “Judas animals”.

These are raccoon dogs that have been caught, sterilised, tagged and released.

Raccoon dogs stay with a partner for life and as soon as the Judas dogs are released, they go in search of a new partner.

When one stops moving, the office dispatches one of the six full-time field workers to see if it has found a new partner.

Two hours north-east of the office, Noren and Medstrom, the two men on the snowmobiles, have tracked one of the Judas animals to a small uninhabited island still covered in snow.

Their tracking equipment now beeps at shorter intervals.

“You hear, the signal is more frequent, it’s a moving signal,” says Noren. He’s helped by his hunting dog, which can help sniff out the raccoon dog but is muzzled so it can’t do any harm.

There are paw prints in the snow. It’s hard to tell whether it’s from one raccoon dog or two.

Noren tells everyone to stop. There’s fur poking out from behind a tree.

Are raccoon dogs aggressive animals?

“I’m used to comparing it to a badger on sleeping pills,” Noren says.

Hunter with trapped raccoon dog
Image caption Ludde Noren with a trapped raccoon dog

Project leader Ahlen takes the lead and hooks the raccoon dog with a snare. It barely moves.

It is alone and hasn’t managed to find a partner for the team to shoot.

So it is weighed and released.

The system hasn’t worked on this occasion but Ahlen is convinced of its effectiveness.

“I stole it from the Spanish and Ecuadorian governments, their way of eradicating goats on Galapagos,” he says. “[They] didn’t succeed until they started with the Judas goats.”

Ahlen says it’s a technique being used a lot now in conservation biology to eradicate invasive species. There are Judas rats in Mexico, Judas pigs in North America and Judas camels in Australia.

At one time, there were between 100-130 raccoon dogs in Sweden, Ahlen says. But in the past 10 years they have killed about 2,000 in Sweden and on the bordering areas of Finland and they’re now finding and killing fewer and fewer.


The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

Sweden has a relatively small population of raccoon dogs – now probably fewer than 100, says Ahlen. He estimates there are up to 1,000 in Denmark and hundreds of thousands in Germany and Poland. In Finland the population is rising and in spring is approximately 250,000 – although about a million cubs are born each year, most die from starvation, hunting and road accidents. In Norway, there are “hopefully zero – we try to keep it that way”. In France a few sightings and some road kills have been reported. The creatures could soon establish themselves in the wild both there and in the UK where escaped pets pose a potential problem, he says.


It’s illegal to keep them as pets in Sweden, Denmark and Norway but Ahlen says he has seen evidence that people in the UK do have them as pets.

“The thing if you have them as pets is that they will escape and then you will endanger your native fauna if you release them in England,” he says.

“Both from Ireland and the UK, I’ve seen several cases where people have lost their pets and I’m quite sure that if you have not already, I think that you will have your first feral emerging population by reproduction of escaped pets.”

Ahlen says the project to eradicate raccoon dogs in Sweden hasn’t faced any opposition.

“Not even the animal rights groups are against what we’re doing because we are protecting our grandchildren’s nature, we are protecting the animals that will disappear if we have raccoon dogs in southern Sweden,” he says.

“Conservation biology is not always nice, it’s not beautiful all the time.”

Article ends.

My take: That final quote is quite telling.  Cuteness should not be an excuse for not controlling feral species that pose a threat to local wildlife.

Next is a local approach to deal with the predators that may endanger Japan’s only native rabbit species.

From the Japan Times;

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/05/09/national/kagoshima-isle-neutering-3000-cats-in-bid-to-protect-rare-rabbits/#.VzF7r_mLTIU

Kagoshima isle neutering 3,000 cats in bid to protect rare rabbits

KYODO

 MAY 9, 2016

Three municipalities on a remote island in Kagoshima Prefecture are midway through an unprecedented project to neuter all 3,000 resident felines in order to protect native rabbits. The rare bunnies are designated as a special national treasure.

Only around 200 Amami rabbits are thought to inhabit the island of Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, which has a human population of 23,000. The rabbits are at risk of being attacked and killed by stray cats.

“Domestic cats have a hunting instinct, and they hunt when they become feral,” said Harutaka Watanabe at the Environment Ministry’s nature conservation office on the island.

“There are no carnivorous mammals on the island, so native rabbits are not so vigilant,” said Watanabe, 30.

Culling the strays is not a realistic option for the island, which is part of the Amami and Ryukyu islands. The area is seeking recognition as a World Natural Heritage site.

Osamu Minobe, a 60-year-old islander from the town of Isen, said the isle would not qualify as a heritage site if the slaughter of thousands of cats takes place.

As a solution, the three municipalities on the island launched the project in November 2014 in collaboration with an animal protection organization based in Hyogo Prefecture.

Municipal officials set traps to capture stray cats. Veterinarians from Doubutsu Kikin (Animal Fund) neuter the cats and notch their ears before they are released.

Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has also started a project to capture cats in the mountains that prey on the island’s rabbits. The ministry also neuters the cats and temporarily keeps them in a shelter run by the three municipalities on the island until new owners are found. The owners are required to keep the cats indoors.

“I hope we can change the residents’ mindsets, encouraging them to keep their cats indoors,” said Hikaru Akiyama, 29, who is in charge of the shelter.

So far, some 2,200 cats have gone through the process, and Amami rabbits are being seen in greater numbers already. A staff member at Doubutsu Kikin said it is important to continue the effort or the situation would revert to that five years ago, as the cats reproduce quickly.

Under the project, cat owners can have their pets neutered for free, as many are reluctant to pay for the operation.

Article ends.

My take:  There are two telling quotes in this article. One is about cat owners being reluctant to pay for neutering, which I find a bit rich considering the exorbitant prices people are willing to pay for cats.  (Note:  People in Japan tend to buy cats from pet dealers – typically for well over one hundred thousand yen – rather than adopt)

It reminds me of the woman who refused to neuter her female cat on the grounds that it was “cruel”, but proceeded to drown the unwanted kittens.  Go figure.

The other pertinent quote is the one about the island not becoming a World Heritage site if the slaughter of cats takes place.  It certainly won’t become a World Heritage site – a status symbol Japan craves beyond belief – if its rabbits become extinct.

Don’t Count Your Eggs

8 May

Hi blog.

It’s that time of year again – too many family, social and work obligations, not enough sleep and the sun coming up early.

This is just a quick post and a reminder of what can happen if you keep your eyes open.

… a little egg lay on a leaf.

Even if I had only found the egg, I would probably have guessed that the parent was a Chinese peacock – as in the swallowtail butterfly, not the bird!  Chinese peacocks (Papilio bianor) are large butterflies with mostly black or extremely dark wings, leading to its Japanese name of karasuageha (烏揚羽), literally “crow swallowtail”.  We occasionally spot them flying around our mandarin tree, and sometimes see their larvae.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a pupa – I suspect the larvae have fallen prey to various spiders and wasps.

In this case, I saw the butterfly land on the leaf for a few seconds and deposit a single egg.

I pointed this out to a certain little boy, who wanted to collect the egg to observe it.  I guess we’ll let it hatch and return the larva to the tree.  Hopefully, we’ll get to see a complete life-cycle in our garden some time.

Invasion of the Turtles

27 Apr

Hi blog.

We’ve had some glorious weather, perfect for cycling to work.  The home trip is not quite as satisfying, mostly because of the tiny flying insects that swarm under the trees in the late afternoon and collide with my face.

I’ve spotted pheasants, both male and female, a masked palm civet, seen the feeding habits of crows, heard the cries of thrushes and bush warblers… pity that the ride ends at work!

I’ve seen the Mississippi red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) too.  I’ve mentioned them in an older post, and have often wondered why the local governments don’t seem to be doing anything about them.

Alien invasion! Walk for you lives!

Then this article from the Japan Times made its way into my news feed:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/26/national/social-issues/alien-red-ear-sliders-greatly-outnumber-japans-turtles/#.VyB6bzCLTIW

 

Alien red-ear sliders greatly outnumber Japan’s own turtles

BY DAISUKE KIKUCHI

STAFF WRITER

APR 26, 2016

Invasive red-ear slider turtles now vastly outnumber endemic Japanese turtles and are causing significant stress to the ecosystem, the Environment Ministry said Friday.

A study has put the number of red-ear sliders at 8 million, eight times the total population of endemic species.

Originally from the United States, the animals are widely kept as pets. However, they can grow to a considerable size and are often dumped in ponds and rivers when they outgrow their lodgings.

The species is known in Japan as midorigame and in some other countries as the red-ear terrapin.

“The growing population of red-ear slider turtles would mean the depopulation of insects, fish and other turtles that live on water weeds,” Masato Morikawa, an official in charge of monitoring alien species, told The Japan Times on Monday. “The population has gradually but continuously been increasing over the years.”

The species is believed to have been introduced after World War II. From the 1970s, the animals were widely sold at matsuri (festivals) and pet shops.

It is only one of several invasive turtle species now displacing local species.

The ministry said red-ear slider turtles have mainly colonized waterways in Kanto, Chubu and the Inland Sea areas. The entire population is estimated to consume up to 320 tons of water weeds each week.

Morikawa conceded that the need to control other alien species is more pressing as they can cause harm to humans: the poisonous red-back spider and the snapping turtle, which can bite off a finger, are among the priorities.

“At this point, the red-ear slider turtles are exterminated only in areas that are extremely overpopulated, but we are strengthening measures against them,” he said.

The ministry plans to restrict imports, crack down on the abandoning of pets and step up culls.

Article ends.

The writer did make a noticeable mistake in the article – baby red-eared sliders are known as midorigame whereas the species is known as akamimigame or, more correctly, mishishippi akamimigame.

Many people are unaware that it is not a native species.  Others simply take the dichotomal view that it is “foreign” as opposed to “Japanese” – rather than the infinitely more accurate and helpful “introduced” or “feral” as opposed to “native”- and therefore has some natural advantage.  (Much the same way foreign-born sumo wrestlers somehow have an unfair natural advantage… because…  er… reasons)

Red-eared sliders do have certain advantages in this case.  Firstly, they mature at an earlier age than the native turtles they compete with.  They also grow larger, enabling them to successfully compete for basking and nesting space, plus acting as a deterrent against would-be predators.  Thirdly, they are omnivores – the young have a tendency towards carnivorous habits while older turtles prefer plant material – and will feed on either plant or animal matter as need dictates.  Finally, the Japanese suburban and semi-rural environments lack predators that significantly impact their population.  The Mississippi red-eared slider’s natural enemies include alligators, raccoons, and skunks, all missing from the Japanese ecosystem.  Foxes and badgers may prey upon young turtles, but these are noticeably absent from most suburban environments.

My take: The reason for these turtles damaging the environment can be put down to human irresponsibility.  No kind of permit is required to buy the babies sold at shops or even stalls.  A lack of understanding of the responsibilities involved (“What?  I’m supposed to look after this for the next 30 years?”) plus a complete absence of any understanding of the biology of the sliders – like that they don’t remain babies forever.

They start off small, cute and green… but grow to be not small, not cute and not green.

I really have a disdain for killing reptiles, but I feel that culling will be the only way to control their numbers, in addition to banning further imports and restricting ownership.

Stop Hogging Our Island!

19 Apr

Hi blog.

This one showed up on my news feed today.

Courtesy of the Japan Times.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/04/19/national/sea-borne-invasion-wild-boars-japanese-island-leaves-residents-despair/#.VxYa3DCLTIV

Sea-borne invasion of wild boars on Japanese island leaves residents in despair

BY NAZUNA NAGAI

KYODO

An increase in wild boars has upturned the balance on a small island in the Genkai Sea, with the animals outnumbering residents three-to-one.

Over 300 boars are now living on the 2.8-sq.-km Kakara Island, which lies off the coast of Saga prefecture.

While there have been no injuries so far, “People will be forced off the island if the current situation continues,” said a resident of the islet, population 100.

The boars arrived about 15 years ago. They are thought to have swum the 3 kilometers from Kyushu.

Even today, boars are occasionally seen swimming off the island. Teruki Kawasaki, 27, a local Japan Coast Guard official, saw a pair of boars swimming while he was aboard a patrol boat. They were “good swimmers,” he said.

Boars have thrived on Kakara due to an absence of natural predators and an abundance of crops, including pumpkins and sweet potatoes, said a an official of Karatsu city, Saga Prefecture, which the island belongs to administratively.

Islanders had hopes of producing cosmetics from camellias growing in clusters on the island to generate revenue and promote tourism, but the boars have inflicted widespread damage.

The island has steep cliffs, making it difficult to hunt the boars with dogs. So islanders set up traps in bushes and capture around 50 boars a year, but they are unable to keep up with the growing population. A sow can give birth to five or six piglets each year.

At night, islanders are forced to use cars when they go out because the boars roam close to their homes. The two children on the island are driven to and from the local elementary school by their parents.

An increasing number of villages in Japan sell boar meat as a specialty, but most households on Kakara rely on fishing. “We cannot become hunters. . . . We have our hands tied,” said Toshiyuki Tokumura, a 66-year-old squid fisherman.

Article ends.

Hmm… an interesting problem.  It sounds like an inability to adapt that is driving the island to extinction rather than wild boars alone…

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