Many Japanese people treated themselves to grilled eels on the eel-eating day on Tuesday, likely with a softer impact on their wallets as eels are more reasonably priced than last year.
The domestic catch of juvenile eels rose early this year for the first time in three seasons, leading to a fall in the price of glass eels for cultivation.
In Japan, many people eat eel, typically grilled with sweet soy sauce, on the midsummer day of the ox following an old saying that consuming eels on that day helps in coping with the summer heat. This year the day of the midsummer day of the ox falls on Tuesday and Aug. 6.
On Tuesday, people flocked to famous eel restaurants and bought cooked eels at grocery stores, with the Maruetsu supermarket chain selling one grilled domestic eel for 1,680 yen ($15) in Tokyo, around 15 percent lower than the previous year.
"The price is still a bit expensive, but it's a reward for the summer," said Mikiko Watanabe, a 36-year-old housewife, said while shopping.
Amid heightened concern over overfishing, however, some local governments in Japan have introduced regulations to protect adult eels that have yet to spawn eggs.
According to the Fisheries Agency, the domestic catch of glass eels for cultivation from November 2016 to May increased 1.8 tons from the previous year to 15.4 tons, with their wholesale price coming to 1 million yen per kilogram, around 40 percent lower than the previous two seasons.
But the level of Japan's glass eel catch has fallen significantly compared with the early 1980s, when the catch totaled around 30 tons per season.
In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated Japanese eels as endangered. Participating countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, also known as the Washington Convention, may decide to regulate transaction of the species at its meeting in 2019, industry observers said.
In Shizuoka Prefecture, a major eel cultivating area in Japan, the prefectural government announced earlier this month a ban on fishing for eels in every river in the prefecture during the period from October to February, when adult eels journey back from rivers to the oceans for spawning.
Similar regulations have already been introduced in seven prefectures, with the southwestern Japan prefecture of Miyazaki pioneering such moves in 2012.
But prefectural officials say it is too early to evaluate the effects of the regulations on the eel ecosystem, with the glass eel catch in Kagoshima wildly fluctuating over the past five years since the prefecture's introduction of such a regulation in 2013.
Much of the eel ecosystem remains unknown and it is hard to figure out what steps would be truly effective in protecting them.
A Fisheries Agency official said that it is still unclear what increases the risk of eel resource depletion, adding that overfishing, a change in marine currents and deterioration of their living environment resulting from river revetment construction and other developments may be a cause.
"We're in a state where everyone involved has to tackle the issue with an attitude of doing whatever they can in their capacity," the official said.
People started to form a line earlier than usual at the Funaya eel restaurant in Osaka's Ikuno Ward on Tuesday, as owner Norio Yamamoto, 50, put more eel in bento to-go boxes thanks to the fall in price.
"Usually, eels are beyond our budget, so it's a big event for our family," Yoshio Ihaya, 72, from Osaka's Higashisumiyoshi Ward, said while buying two bento eel boxes from the restaurant for himself and his wife.