Eight years after she first started growing eels in her basement, Sara Rademaker is about to open the country’s first eel aquaculture production facility at a business park in midcoast Maine.
Rademaker’s company, American Unagi, has been operating out of the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin since 2018, but next month the company will move to its own brand-new building in Waldoboro.
Long anticipated by economic development officials and others invested in the state’s growing aquaculture sector, the move is seen as a key step in helping to add value to Maine’s $20 million annual baby eel fishery. The venture also has received some national attention as being a possible alternate eel source for American sushi restaurants, which import all their stock from Asia.
“We are in the final details now,” Rademaker said of completing the company’s new production site at the Waldoboro Business Park. “This is a good business for the Maine coast.”
The move is years in the making. Construction was originally planned to begin in March 2020 but got sidetracked .
“We were going to be here a year,” Rademaker said Thursday morning, taking a break from sorting eels. “Then COVID happened. The pandemic definitely didn’t help.”
The company finally broke ground in July 2021.
Rademaker, an Indiana native who attended Auburn University in Alabama, was inspired to grow eels after moving to Maine in 2009 to take a job at the Herring Gut Coastal Science Center in Port Clyde. She was still at the center a few years later when the price and demand soared for Maine’s wild-caught baby eels, which also are called glass eels or elvers.
Maine is the only state with a sizable elver fishery, and global demand for eels skyrocketed after the European Union banned the export of eels, which are endangered on that continent. That same year, in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami wiped out part of the supply of farmed eels in Japan, where more eels are eaten than anywhere else.
Because of this, the value of Maine’s annual elver landings went from around half a million dollars in 2010 to $40 million in 2012. But every single elver caught in Maine was being shipped live to East Asia, where they are raised to adult stage and then sold into the global seafood market. Rademaker saw potential for a U.S.-based facility.
“We’re keeping a thing unique to Maine in Maine,” Rademaker said, adding that American Unagi already ships its grown eels to restaurants in the Midwest and on the West Coast. She said she does not export any eels out of the U.S.
“Eels are eaten all over the world,” she said.
And because of an odd quirk of eel biology, Rademaker’s business is dependent on Maine’s elver fishery, rather than a competitor with it.
Eels reproduce far out in the Atlantic Ocean, where no one has ever witnessed this behavior, and no eel biologist has ever figured out how to get eels to reproduce in captivity. Rademaker consequently has to buy baby eels from Maine fishermen in order to supply her business with eels to grow to market size. She said she buys around 6 percent of all the elvers caught in the state each year.
With a statewide annual catch limit of roughly 9,600 pounds, that would mean American Unagi buys roughly 600 pounds of elvers each year. Maine elver fishermen earned an average of $2,157 per pound for their catch this spring, so American Unagi would have paid roughly $1.25 million for its baby eels this year.
Rademaker said that after her company moves to Waldoboro and gets up to speed there, it will aim to produce half a million pounds of adult eels each year. That’s still only 5 percent of all of the eels imported to the U.S. each year from Asia, which leaves a lot of room for the company’s market share to grow, she said.
“We have around eight total employees now,” she said. “We will probably double that in the next year as we ramp up production.”
The aquaculture entrepreneur said that growing eels in Maine gives her an advantage over eel growers and distributors in Asia. Her eels travel much shorter distances and through fewer sets of hands, which helps to keep her shipping costs relatively low. The baby eels she buys also have a 90 percent survival rate before they go to market, which is much higher than the typical 35 percent survival rate for baby eels that are shipped to Asia and then shipped back as adults to the U.S., she said.
Rademaker said that as eager as she is to move into her own facility, she is grateful for the help and assistance she has received along the way — which includes a couple of years at UMaine’s Darling Marine Center in South Bristol before she relocated to Franklin. The time spent incubating her business and developing her growing methods has allowed her to demonstrate to investors and funding agencies that her business works and has the potential to grow not just itself, but Maine’s seafood industry.
“This place has allowed me to do that,” Rademaker said of the support she has received in Maine. “I could not have done it anywhere else.”