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

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Eels are delicious: despite their 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 main species of edible eels (American, European and Japanese eels) are all endangered, some critically endangered. Many eels appearing on menus are farmed in China, where limited regulations mean eel farms can import the fish from illegal or sustainably-fished populations and then farm them using potentially harmful chemicals. So what should an ethical eel eater do?

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

One of the challenges that any budding eel farmer faces is that eels are notoriously elusive. The list of scientists who have tried unsuccessfully to master the life cycle and biology of the slippery fish is long – and includes Sigmund Freud, whose pioneering work on human sexuality may have been inspired by his inability to find testicles. of eel 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 breed and then die in deep ocean waters: For American eels that end up in Maine, that place is in the Sargasso Sea, a weird, grass-covered sea in the ocean. west of the North Atlantic Ocean which is also home to the Bermuda Triangle. But no one has ever seen an eel breeding there, and no one has managed to convince the American eel to breed in captivity.

This means that eel farmers must source all their baby eels from the wild – which, in turn, makes the annual catch of American glass eels, when millions of tiny, fidgety, transparent baby eels swim in estuaries and the rivers and in the nets of Maine anglers, one of the most lucrative in the world per pound.

Until recently, all baby eels were trucked from Maine to New York and shipped to Asia overnight. For Rademaker, it just didn’t make sense. “It’s the most valuable fishery per pound, and the entire fishery is shipped to China to be grown there,” she says. “I was like, okay, well, we should just do this here! Why isn’t anyone doing this? Like all good innovators, Rademaker started out in his basement, growing a few eels from baby to mature adults. in tanks. But it wasn’t until she harvested and smoked her first eels that she knew she was a winner. “I literally had like an epiphany on the cutting board after catching the first few 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 installation for American Unagi. This year, the company has expanded into its brand new commercial-sized facility, where Rademaker can not only raise more than one million eels to adulthood each year, but also process, smoke and package them for sale. Every American Unagi eel is traceable back to the tightly regulated Maine fishery, raised without harmful chemicals – and, what’s more, because approximately 90% of Rademaker’s baby eels survive to adulthood on the farm, compared to about 1% in the wild, it really makes the most of a limited wild resource. As Rademaker likes to say, “It’s a better eel.”

Rademaker’s eels have been marketed as whole fish, butterfly fillets, delicious smoked alder and oak fillets, and canned smoked eels from the Gulf of Maine Conservas. Even with the expansion of its farming facilities, 95% of the eels consumed in America will still be grown overseas, but Rademaker hopes 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 her.

Listen to this episode to find out how the eel eluded scientists for centuries, when humans relied on it for food and even money (eels were one of the most common ways to pay a rent in medieval England!). Gastropod also goes eel night fishing – and why you should serve eel at your next Thanksgiving dinner. Follow and subscribe for more.

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