Many Mainers are familiar with the state’s lucrative fishery for transparent “glass eels,” or elvers. They can fetch thousands of dollars a pound when shipped to Japan, China and other Asian countries, where they are grown to market size.
Now, one Maine entrepreneur wants to add the value herself, growing eels to full size here — a first for the U.S. The startup, American Unagi, is showing early signs of success.
When the elver season opens each spring, Maine fisherman Justin Jordan likes to try one out.
“I eat the first elver that I catch every year. Just for good luck for the season. It’s a little slimy and a little salty but it doesn’t taste like much, because they’re so small,” he says.
Sushi lovers will tell you full-grown eels, called unagi, are pretty tasty. That’s why Sara Rademaker started growing them a few years ago — in her basement.
“It was like dingy stones, a dirt floor and a glorified large aquarium with a couple of tanks. And also we had butchered a pig. So that was hanging. It was quite the scene with, like, an exposed lightbulb,” she says.
The scene today is a little less macabre. Last month, Rademaker took over an indoor “recirculating aquaculture system” at a University of Maine research center on the Mt. Desert Narrows in Franklin. It’s a small warehouse, with rows of shoulder-high circular green tanks, pumps and hoses, plus some proprietary technology she is developing.
The tanks brim with wriggling eels, some pencil thin, some fat as cigars.
“We’ve got thousands. Thousands of fat little eels,” Rademaker says.
Eels are actually fish - with fins and gills.
“If you look closely they almost have puppy dog eyes, and a little smile, the way their jaw is shaped,” she says.
Rademaker drops in a pinch of microalgae and fishmeal. She says the right feed is essential to the flavor and protein content that will make them marketable and happy.
“The sign of a happy eel [is] when they swarm and feed really excitedly, almost splashing the water,” she says.
These eels, like all Anguilla rostrata, started out in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda.
“They spawn there, and then those larval eels, when they hatch, they just drift on the currents. They don’t know if they’re going to land in the Caribbean or Canada,” Rademaker says.
They may also end up in a fisherman’s net at the mouth of a river in Maine, where this spring some 7,500 pounds of the toothpick-thin elvers met that fate.
Wild eel populations are under stress worldwide, and many countries are restricting harvests. But Rademaker recently won federal permission for Maine’s elver fishermen to exceed their annual quota by 200 pounds, which she will raise to maturity, and hopes to sell 20,000 pounds this year.
The question is, who will eat all that American Unagi? The patrons of Sammy’s Deluxe restaurant in downtown Rockland, for one. Owner and chef Sam Richman doesn’t serve it up sushi style though. Instead he smokes it, European style.
“It honestly winds up tasting not dissimilar to a mild kielbasa or a mild bacon. It’s really juicy,” he says.
Richman says customers are intrigued.
“Because of the really great story of American Unagi. And everybody’s familiar with elvers and the value of that fishery. So people know about them but haven’t really eaten them, so I think they’re eager to give it a try,” he says.
They’ll be joining a growing world population that’s hungry for more and more seafood, and increasingly able to pay for it. And in the U.S., domestic supply is nowhere near meeting demand.
“We already import about 90 percent of our seafood,” says James Anderson, who directs the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Florida and is a former advisor to the World Bank.
Anderson says the U.S. needs to step up its efforts to bring aquaculture back home.
“In states like Maine there’s been a lot of progress, but elsewhere it’s been almost no growth, and we just have chosen as a nation to depend on imports,” he says.
Rademaker is doing her part to change the equation and trying to capture some of the value that right now is going abroad. She has already lined up investors for a full-scale commercial facility in the midcoast.
“That’s our goal. This is a stepping stone to our commercial production. We’re planning to be online next year,” she says.
Rademaker says she can boost output more than tenfold, selling more than 250,000 pounds of eel in the U.S. next year, at as much as $25 a pound.