Farming Eels for Food in America Is More Complicated Than You Might Think

Eels are delicious: Despite a slimy, snake-like appearance, their tender, rich meat is a favorite in everything from seaside fish fries to sushi to haute cuisine. But today’s eel lover faces a dilemma. The three major species of edible eels (American, European, and Japanese eels) are all endangered, some critically so. Many eels appearing on menus are raised in China, where limited regulation means that eel farms can import the fish from illegal or sustainably fished populations, and then grow them using potentially harmful chemicals. So what’s an ethical eel eater to do?

In an otherwise unassuming business park in Waldoboro, Maine, one small company may have a solution. On this week’s episode of Gastropod, “Reinventing the Eel,” co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley visit the brand-new industrial facility of American Unagi, the first and only commercial-sized eel farm in North America, where pioneering eel farmer Sara Rademaker is trying to change the way the U.S. buys and eats eel.

One of the challenges facing any wannabe eel farmer is that eels are notoriously elusive. The list of scientists who have tried and failed to get a grip on the life cycle and biology of the slippery fish is long — and includes Sigmund Freud, whose pioneering work on human sexuality was perhaps inspired by his failure to find eel testicles as a 19-year-old student.

Today, as Patrik Svensson, author of The Book of Eels, told Gastropod, eels are still “the most mysterious fish.” Biologists believe adult eels reproduce and then die out in deep ocean water: for the American eels that end up in Maine, that spot is out in the Sargasso Sea, a strange, weed-covered sea in the western North Atlantic Ocean that’s also home to the Bermuda Triangle. But no one has ever seen an eel reproduce there, and no one has managed to convince the American eel to reproduce in captivity.

What that means is that eel farmers have to source all their baby eels from the wild — which, in turn, makes the annual American glass eel catch, when millions of tiny, wriggly, see-through baby eels swim up estuaries and rivers and into the waiting nets of fishers in Maine, one of the world’s most lucrative per pound.

Until recently, all baby eels were trucked from Maine to NYC, and shipped out to Asia overnight. To Rademaker, that just didn’t make sense. “It is the most valuable fishery per pound, and the entirety of the fishery is getting shipped to China to be grown,” she says. “I was like, all right, well, we should just do this here! Why isn’t anybody doing this?” Like all good innovators, Rademaker started out in her basement, growing a few eels from babies to mature adults in tanks. But it wasn’t till she harvested and smoked her first eels that she knew she was onto a winner. “I literally had like an epiphany over the cutting board after I took the first eels that I had grown,” she says. “I was just like, I have to make this product. It’s phenomenal.”

From there, Rademaker developed a pilot facility for American Unagi. This year, the company has expanded into their brand-new commercial-sized facility, where Rademaker can not only raise more than a million eels to adulthood every year, but also process, smoke, and package them for sale. Every American Unagi eel is traceable back to Maine’s tightly regulated fishery, raised without harmful chemicals — and, what’s more, because about 90 percent of Rademaker’s baby eels survive to adulthood on the farm, compared to about one percent in the wild, she’s really making the most of a limited wild resource. As Rademaker likes to say, “It’s a better eel.”

Rademaker’s eels made their way to market as whole fish, butterflied filets, delicious alder- and oak-smoked filets, and canned smoked eel from Gulf of Maine Conservas. Even with her expanded farm facilities, 95 percent of eel eaten in America will still be grown overseas, but Rademaker is hoping to expand. And, in the meantime, she’s working with scientists to help solve some of the eel’s many mysteries — and, in the process, to help save it.

Listen to this episode for the story of how the eel has eluded scientists for centuries, while humans relied on them for food and even currency (eels were one of the most common ways to pay rent in medieval England!). Gastropod also goes nighttime eel fishing — and makes the case for why you should serve eel at your next Thanksgiving dinner. Follow and subscribe for more.