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From harvest to full-grown, Maine eels find a market

Elvers, which can sell for thousands of dollars a pound, are now being grown at American Unagi.

WALDOBORO, Maine — Sara Redemaker peers into the depth of a big tank and likes what she sees.

Inside the tank, which is full of circulating water, thousands of eels swirl and churn, roiling the surface as they compete for tiny pellets of food.

“We have a million of them,” she says with a smile, waving to the indoor eel farm, which has four long rows of tanks, some empty, but many filled with eels of varying sizes.

Welcome to American Unagi, Redemaker’s dream of taking the tiny, nearly transparent glass eels—also called elvers—that hundreds of Maine fishermen catch each spring – and growing them to full size here in Maine. These eels then are sold to restaurants around the country, which she says have a growing interest in eels for a wider range of Asian-inspired dishes.

“It's crazy. The dishes we see being put together with our eel products,” Redemaker says. “It's not just sushi. It's top Michelin 5-star restaurants [that] are making incredible dishes that make everyone here really proud.”

The annual elver harvest on Maine's coastal streams and rivers lasts about two-and-a-half months and makes serious money for the fishermen. The tiny eels can sell for as much as $2,000 per pound. And until Redemaker’s business came along, those eels were all shipped to Asia, primarily China, where they are grown to size in outdoor ponds. 

“A pound of eels (grown to full size) is worth about $14,000. So, it can more than double," Redemaker said. 

That’s the value-added aspect that many of Maine’s natural resource businesses hope to create, and it's what inspired Redemaker, who already has a background in aquaculture, to start the business.

“I saw an opportunity to take a resource well-managed in Maine and keep it here in Maine”, Redemaker says.

“When I saw what was happening with the fishery, there is this really valuable resource in Maine. But the entirety of it is being shipped abroad, grown there, then imported back. I asked, 'Why isn’t anybody doing it here?'” Redemaker said. 

She began with a small R&D project based in space at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center. Then, Redemaker moved it to another aquaculture facility in Franklin, where she began also selling grown eels to restaurants. In 2021, after securing financing, she built the $10.1 million eel farm in Waldoboro.

Now, with two years' worth of eels growing and going to market, she says American Unagi is working as she had hoped it would. Marketing manager Kelsey Woodworth says the company sells around 500,000 pounds of grown eels per year.

“I also look at the U.S. market,” Redemaker says. “We [the United States] import 11 million pounds of eels. I’m going to be producing an eel that’s way better, but it also costs me more to produce than others.

She says the water quality and other controls in the farm result in a much better quality eel than those from Asia.

“There isn’t an eel like ours out in the marketplace. In terms of the quality we produce, but also accountability, and traceability back to us and harvesters, nothing like that. And people recognize that. Eels are a product that the stuff coming in from abroad often has zero accountability, and people take it off menus because of that. We are on menus that have sustainability standards that our eel can be part of," she said. 

“It's such an awesome fish, such a unique fish, “ said Woodworth, who was a professional chef before taking on marketing for American Unagi. The business name comes from the Japanese term for the eel, which is common in lakes and rivers in the eastern United States. It's actually born in the sea, swims into coastal streams and into lakes to grow, only returning to the sea to spawn.

She says restaurant interest among chefs has been strong and describes a growing network of chefs who describe how they find ways to cook the eels.

“There's just new ways every day. We get restaurants from all over the world, cooks from all over the world, and here in the U.S.," Woodworth said.  

As for the farm and the business, “It's taken a lot of work,” says Redemaker. 

Besides her own research and planning, she says it took significant financial support over the years from private investors, Maine Technology Institute (MTI), Coastal Enterprises, Inc.(CEI), and Gorham Savings Bank.

Looking around the farm, and asking how it feels to have the 10-year dream up and running, she paused before answering.

“There’s a lot of emotion,” she replied. “I’m really proud. I’m always amazed by these fish. It takes a lot of work. Not only from me but a lot of love from my team.”

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