Fish No. 5: Conger (Pike) Eel – Muraenesox cinereus

Scientific Name: Muraenesox cinereus
Common Names: Conger Eel, dagger-tooth pike conger, conger pike, pike eel, 海鰻 or 海鳗 or 海鳗 in Mandarin Chinese, 海鰻 in Taiwanese, hamo in Japanese, Pindanga in Tagolog, .
Origin: China

As the last thing the world needs is another “food blog” I decided to concentrate these fish posts more on the fish themselves, their marine biology and sustainability and fisheries. That said lets turn to the Conger Eel Muraenesox cinereus.

Its a member of the Eel group (which has 600 species!) and lives on soft bottoms down to a depth of about 100 metres where it feeds on small bottom fish and crustaceans. Its also sometimes found in estuaries and can even enter freshwater environments. They commonly reach length of 150 cm, but may grow as long as 200 cm. It occurs in the Red Sea, on the coast of the northern Indian Ocean, and in the East Pacific from Indochina to Japan. It has also invaded the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. Conger eel is a major commercial species, with annual catches reaching about 350,000 tonnes in recent years. The countries reporting the largest landings were China and Taiwan. It is a traditional food in Japanese cuisine, where it is known as hamo and is wild caught but also cultured. Conger eel meat has been used as an ingredient in creating crab sticks.

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It is marketed mainly fresh and is also used as bait for shark fishing. In China dried conger eel is apparently popular with eels 1m in length being split down the middle, gutted, washed in saline solution and then air dried – though I have never seen one in Hong Kong (so far). According to the traditional chinese medicine Wiki (TCM Wiki) the spawn – or eggs – (Hai Man Luan) of the Conger Eel is used to strengthen the body by means of tonics which reduce weakness, anemia, cirrhosis, hepatic adipose infiltration, neurasthenia. This is done by baking it to yellow, and then pounding it into powder, then taking 6~12 g of the powder orally. Another source (The Encyclopedic Reference of Traditional Chinese Medicine edited by Yang Xinrong) says it is used to with a detoxifying effect to treat malignant skin boils, scabies, and hemorrhoids with anal fistula (if you’re anything as curious as me when you read “anal fistula” …let me save you the trouble, of searching for it: here is the link to Wikipedia explaining it – enjoy…yuk!). 
For the expats reading this : according to my 1962 book that is the inspiration for the fish posts, ‘Europeans’ (I think this is meant to include Americans) have only ever eaten 3-4 local fish species in Hong Kong. So should you bother expanding your food horizon with conger eel? Is this a good fish to eat? I can tell you it tastes just very nice with firm white flesh, but there are a lot of tiny bones that pretty much spoil the experience – for me anyway. From what I have read a lot of Chinese fish balls contain conger eel – probably along with other fish species – because ground down to paste and kneaded into fish balls the tiny bones are no longer a problem. So if you have ever eaten fish balls (perhaps in soup) , chances are you have had already tried conger eel without knowing it.
But the big question is – should you eat it? Is it sustainable? What does the WWF Seafood Guide say? It says – nothing, a big fat nothing. Conger eel is not mentioned at all. Zip. So now what? I have contacted Park’n’Shop again to get some more details on how they sourced their fish. But while we wait for an answer, I had a look around the internet to see what info is available on conger eel fisheries in China or Southeast Asia in general. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the catches of conger eel (and most other fish species) in China have skyrocketed in the last 20 years, going from 40,850 tonnes in 1990, to 372,704 in 2011! In Japan, the conger eel is caught by longlines and then transferred to fish farms to mature and they are making attempts to produce spawn so that they can farm this fish in future.  And that’s about all you can find on the internet!
So we will have to wait and see what Park’n’Shop says. If the fish is caught by trawling, its a definitive no-no so AVOID. And if it is farmed or caught by lines, that’s is a bit better, but no guarantee that it is sustainable, so “THINK TWICE”. In the absence of information my verdict for now is a cautionary “AVOID”.

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