Sara Rademaker, the force behind the nation’s first commercial indoor eel-growing operation, at her interim facility in the University of Maine’s Cooperative Aquaculture Research Center in October 2018. Credit: Fred Bever / Maine Public

Ground has been broken on Maine’s first land-based eel aquaculture operation in Waldoboro.

Sara Rademaker, founder and president of American Unagi, said when it’s complete, the 27,000-square-foot facility will be able to grow and process at least 2 million eels and perhaps take back a tiny portion of an industry that’s been dominated by Asian markets.

“Right now, we have this really valuable glass eel fishery. The entirety of that fishery is being exported mostly to China, they’re grown on farms there, and then we’re importing them back into the US,” Rademaker said.

While mostly seen on Asian menus these days, eels have a long culinary and cultural history in Maine as well, which Rademaker is hoping folks will remember. She said cultural ties can be an important step in conservation.

“You know we have this valuable resource,it’s trying to use the resources that we have in a better way, and connecting people through food, I think it’s better for not only our Maine community and the fishery, but ultimately the species, because it makes people understand and connect to that fish,” Rademaker said.

But eels remain a species of conservation concern, due to their unique catadromous life cycle, and dependence on the Sargasso Sea for spawning habitat. Consequently, all eels are collected from the wild as juvenile elvers or glass eels.

American eel is listed as a “good alternative” to other eels by Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, but with some “concerns” due to uncertainty over whether a wild elver harvest is sustainable. Concerns also exist over some operations’ harvesting and processing methods.

Rademaker said conservation of the species is important and Maine’s quota-based harvest was a consideration in deciding to build the facility.

The aquafarm will open in the spring in time to take in about 600 pounds of locally caught elvers.

The company estimates the facility will be able to produce about 500 thousand pounds of eel each year, supplying about 5 percent of the U.S. market.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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