PORTLAND, Maine - More than 400 academics and business people are in Portland this week for the Northeast Aquaculture Conference, one of the industry's biggest events. One subject under the spotlight is the feasibility of growing eels commercially in North America.
Aquaculture advocates say the economic potential for Maine is huge. But there are also a number of hurdles to overcome.
Maine's glass eel harvest is way down from a few years ago, and elver fishermen are facing more quota restrictions this year. But the fishery is still the second most valuable one in the state, after lobster. And Maine is pretty much the only state that harvests elvers in significant numbers.
Currently there are about 600 licensed elver fishermen in Maine. The baby eels they harvest are exported to Asia, where they're grown to full size in fish farms and sold at a much higher price as sushi products.
Barry Costa-Pierce says this is a missed economic opportunity for the Pine Tree State. "So Maine has got, what, over 600 permits out there for harvesting elvers," he says, "and we're shipping all of our elvers to China and Taiwan and we're missing all of that value."
Costa-Pierce directs the University of New England's Marine Science Program. Much more research needs to be done on eel aquaculture, he says, but he's hopeful a multi-million dollar aquaculture grant from the National Science Foundation last year will fund much of the work.
Some of it could begin next year, when two pilot eel farms are expected to begin operating. If eels can be commercially grown here, Costa-Pierce says they could not only be shipped to Asia, but could also help meet the growing U.S. demand for Japanese-style cuisine.
"The market is growing tremendously with the growth in ethnic restaurants," says Costa-Pierce, "particularly in the Northeast."
Costa-Pierce says, according to many predictions, the value of Maine's elver fishery could triple in value to $100 million if the state could establish its own eel aquaculture industry.
"I think the potential is enormous," says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. "Number one, we're close to the source of juveniles - there's always an issue when you ship juveniles over a long distance about survival rates. We're so close that we could have very good survival rates. And we've got the expertise and the technology here. We have amazing fish farming expertise here. We would be well-positioned to build a domestic industry."
Before this can happen, there are numerous obstacles to be overcome, however, and Paul Smith is all too aware of them. "I'm focused on the farming methods which need to be developed for the American eel, which has not been farmed in North America," he says.
Smith is president of Novaeel Incorporated, a company set up last year in Nova Scotia to try to perfect eel farming in this part of the world. He has a pilot farm up and running and hopes to have a commercially viable facility within three years. He says it's not going to be easy.
"There are a group of issues associated with farming eels that make it challenging," Smith says. "They require warm water, and when you crowd them in tanks, as you need to do in order to be able to do it cost-effectively, most of the eels become males."
That's right - they change sex. And the problem with that is that male eels weigh significantly less than the females, and have little or no market value. Asian eel farms do have a feed product that helps prevent eels from changing sex, but Smith says it has not yet been approved in North America.