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First Land-Based Eel Aquaculture Facility Opens in Waldoboro

American Unagi raises eels in Maine as the only land-based eel aquaculture company in the United States. They source eels from local harvesters in Maine and grow them in a recirculating aquaculture system on the Waldoboro coast. It’s done without hormones or antibiotics … or eels shipped across the world as tiny, clear, toothpick-sized juveniles and brought back as adults.

American Unagi founder Sara Rademaker. Photo courtesy of MainePublic.

The company wrapped up construction on a $10 million, 27,000-square-foot facility in January to expand production of American eel to more than 500,000 pounds a year (or about 2 million eels). American Unagi sells filets and smoked products to wholesalers, restaurants and retailers throughout the U.S. “We took the approach that we should be doing the value-add here and connecting the jobs, the economic benefits, that everything should just be here in the U.S.,” says CEO and founder Sara Rademaker. That amounts to 10 full-time and up to eight part-time jobs at American Unagi, which works with up to 50 harvesters.

“They catch them at rivers,” Rademaker explains. “Eels live their adult lives in freshwater. They’re the opposite of salmon. They’re born in the ocean and come into freshwater to grow up.” At American Unagi, it takes anywhere from eight months to two years to raise the wild eels before they’re ready for market. “We have as many as three different years of eels, so we can harvest every single week,” Rademaker says. The eels are fed a diet of eel chow, the same kind developed in Europe over the last 40 years, she says.

The U.S. imports about 11 million pounds of eel a year, most of which goes to the sushi industry. So why is American Unagi the only company raising American eels in America? Rademaker says it’s a combination of things.

The sushi industry in the U.S. is relatively young, with people only getting to know eel over the last 25 years. The technology of growing eels in aquaculture has steadily improved over the last several decades with systems developed in Europe. The demand for locally produced, traceable seafood also has grown, Rademaker says.

Maine-grown eels will soon be featured in restaurants across the country. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

Maine is one of only two managed U.S. fisheries for American eels along with South Carolina. But a 2023 U.K. study using DNA found that 44% of eel purchased in North American was European eel, even though Europe banned exports in 2010. European baby eels are poached in Europe and smuggled to Asia, where they’re grown in hundreds of fish farms and sent back to Japan, Europe and North America. The study found that 56% of the eel sampled were American eel, the same kind grown by American Unagi in Maine. Most American eel caught in the U.S. are shipped live to China, where they’re raised in aquaculture ponds and sent back here later.

Rademaker says growing eels in Maine is more sustainable on all sorts of levels: from the use of fuel to transport elvers overseas to awareness about the crazy journey the fish make from overseas farms to U.S. consumers…. She says the Maine-raised product speaks for itself as a quality, well-managed fish. “In some ways, OK, we might not be able to make a super cheap eel, but we make a better one and that’s really unique in the world and that really stands out,” Rademaker says. “… We’re having people come to our door asking for our eel because it’s something they can trust on their menus and it’s a really cool fish.”

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