Braised eel, a main delicacy of Japanese cuisine, has seen sales rising in China recently, as such delicacies, usually sold in packages, have been gaining popularity among more young consumers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
China stands as a major country for eel breeding, with Fujian and Guangdong provinces in East and South China boasting large-scale eel-breeding industries. Roasted prepackaged eels and live eels have long been important items in many regions' exports from China.
Last year, China exported 71,000 metric tons of eels, up 33.19 percent year-on-year. The export value reached $1.37 billion, growing 38.23 percent year-on-year. The increase was mainly fueled by the rising export volume of roasted and frozen eels, according to the General Administration of Customs.
China's annual eel output stands at around 110,000 tons, and 55,000 tons of the total were sold domestically. For domestic business, sales of larger-sized eels of 500 grams and 1 kilogram both reached 35,000 tons annually, according to the Eel Industry Association of Fujian province.
"The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't have a significant impact on sales of regular-sized eels, as smaller eels usually are more tender," said Zhang Jiaolin, executive president of the association.
"Large-sized eels are often used for stewing soup, and they are mostly sold to Guangdong province, as well as Shanghai and Zhejiang province. The recent resurgence of the contagion in Shanghai has had a certain negative impact on sales of this category. Large eels cost about 75,000 yuan ($11,800) per ton before the pandemic, and the price has declined to 70,000 yuan per ton now," Zhang said.
In Japan, a country with a big demand for live eels, the capacity for breeding live eels is limited. Due to recent local confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China and a decline in the number of international flights, the import volume of eels from China to Japan dropped slightly, according to Japanese eel-breeding industry news.
In 2021, China exported 32,300 tons of eel to Japan and the value reached $644 million, both accounting for nearly 50 percent of total eel exports to overseas markets, according to Customs data.
In Japan, the busy season for eel sales is typically June through August. In China, the busy season is around October to the Spring Festival period, as traditional Chinese festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, National Day and the Lunar New Year are centered in this period, and consumption of eels during this time accounts for about 60 percent of the whole year in China.
Besides Japan, Malaysia and the United States stood as the second and third-largest overseas markets for China's eel exports last year. Russia and Ukraine were also among the top 10 countries that imported the biggest amounts of eel from China in 2021.
This year, due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, China's eel exports to the two countries declined significantly, and exports to other nations remain flat, according to Fujian Tianma Science and Technology Group Co Ltd, a major eel producer and retailer based in Fujian province.
Fujian Tianma said it owns a large number of eel processing plants and breeding bases, and most of the products it sells are roasted eels in regular size. Now, the supply has been inadequate to meet growing demand. Usually, one ton of live eels can be made into 650 kg of roasted eels.
"Previously, most Chinese people bought live eels and stewed soup or made fish fillets by themselves. Now, sales of braised and roasted prepackaged eels have gradually climbed in China, and most consumers are women, children, and the elderly," Zhang said.
"Demand is expected to grow further, particularly fueled by young consumers. The popularity of e-commerce shopping and livestreaming sessions held by online celebrities have also helped to fuel sales of roasted prepackaged eels," he said.