Eeling and Dealing

How a voracious market for Maine elvers inspired one aquaculture entrepreneur to start an eel farm.

Scott Lermond wrestling with a fyke net at the mouth of the Goose River
Ralston shot fisherman Scott Lermond wrestling with a fyke net at the mouth of the Goose River in May 2011, the year that prices for Maine elvers first surged, due in part to fallout from a devastating tsunami in Japan.
By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
From our May 2022 issue

In March, Maine aquaculture entrepreneur Sara Rademaker turned on the water pumps to begin filling the tanks for the first land-based American eel farm in the U.S. It was a thrilling moment for the 39-year-old founder and president of the Waldoboro-based company American Unagi.

Unagi, you may know, is what sushi chefs call eel. And you’ve probably read about Maine fishermen catching tiny, wriggling elvers, or “glass eels,” in tapered fyke nets as the nearly translucent baby fish migrate from oceanic spawning grounds to Maine’s streams and rivers. After their journey, elvers grow into adult eels in Maine waterways before returning, years later, to their spawning grounds in the Atlantic’s distant Sargasso Sea. Although the harvesting of Maine’s elvers is now tightly regulated, this little-noticed fishery exploded in the early 2000s, when Japanese dealers opened up a voracious and lucrative market for the hardy little fish to be flown across the Pacific, where they are profitably raised in fish ponds in Asia.

Rademaker grew up with a keen interest in fish — her mother is an expert angler and her father a veterinarian — which helped draw her to Maine as an AmeriCorps volunteer with a degree in fisheries and aquaculture. As a child, she loved to raise fish in aquariums. As an adult, she got a job at Herring Gut Center, in Port Clyde, teaching middle-school students how to raise tilapia in tanks and recycle their waste to fertilize leafy vegetables in Herring Gut’s greenhouse — a bit like a scaled-up aquarium from her childhood.

While teaching at Herring Gut, Rademaker began envisioning her own aquaculture business. “You come here and love it and want to stay,” Rademaker said to me recently. As the market for elvers boomed, she watched the gold rush unfold and decided, in 2014, to focus on what looked like an opportunity: to raise eels in Maine for the sushi market. She started with $1,500 worth of elvers — “little torpedoes” she calls them — purchased from local fishermen. She set up a small tank in her basement and successfully raised her first crop of eels, which she sold to a local sushi restaurant. “I don’t know how to fish, but I know how to raise fish,” she told me. “And this was an opportunity to connect aquaculture and fishermen.”

Growing fish on land, as Rademaker is now attempting at scale, with recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology, is not a new idea, but plenty of entrepreneurs have failed to overcome the complex technical challenges — filtration, oxygenation, disease control — that RAS presents. Environmentalists in Maine and elsewhere have long expressed concern about the impacts of growing fish, like Atlantic salmon, in ocean net pens, not least because of the accumulation of excess feed and feces and the potential escape of fish, which might then interbreed with endangered native populations. The same advocates, meanwhile, tend to support the idea of RAS technology, which allows for waste treatment between a fish farm and its discharge.