Podcast Transcript: Species Spotlight: Eels with Sara Rademaker of American Unagi

Species Spotlight: Eels with Sara Rademaker of American Unagi

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Shaun: All right. We are sitting down today with Sarah Rademaker from American Unagi, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because she came and found us at our booth at SENA this year and came and sat down and talked to us about raising eels and we said, “well, we haven’t done a species spotlight episode this year yet. Let’s do one with eels and let’s get the person who claims that she can talk about eels for hours on end.”

So welcome. Sarah, are you ready to talk about eels?

Sara: Always.

Shaun: Always ready. Awesome. So, like I said, this is a Species spotlight episode, so we’re going to get into the ins and outs of eels – biology, physiology, life stages, production methods, capture methods, marketplace, all that kind of stuff.

But before we do that, I want to, as we always do, we want to meet our guests. So, Sarah, can you give us a little background? Who you are and how you got to what you’re doing now, and, just kind of let our listeners know who they’re hearing from?

Sara: Yeah, my name’s Sarah Rademaker. I am an aqua agriculturist.

I’ve spent 20 years. in the aquaculture industry and never thought when I was younger, I was going to be an eel farmer, but a series of events and paths ended up leading me here and, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. Now. It’s a really amazing species and I am excited to talk to all of you about it!

Shaun: Right on. Well, let’s, let’s talk about it. There are two things that I know about eels. One is that they’re delicious in sushi. Two has something to do, with standards and certification. I’m going to bring that up later, but let’s talk about what an eel is. Give us the basic rundown. What are we talking about when we look at eels? Because there are so many different types of eels.

I think some people are going to think of the electric eel, which I think is not actually technically an eel, or Moray eels, you know, there are a lot of different types of fish that people may think of. But when we’re talking about eels in the seafood realm, what are we talking about, and what makes them different from some of the other species?

Sara: So the species that we work with is Anguilla Estrada, and it’s part of a larger group of eels known as the Anguilla species. They’re what makeup unagi, which is a Japanese word for freshwater eel.

This is a species of eel that’s MOUs. So they’re all born out in the ocean. And then spend their, most of them spend their adult lives in freshwater, so Anguilla Anguilla. There are about 15 to 18 species depending on who you talk to across the world that fall into this category.

Shaun: And what is the common name? Is that the glass eel or am I thinking of something else?

Sara: Well, part of its lifecycle is called a glass eel. The species overall is just called the American eel. And in Europe, they call it the European Eel, which is Anguilla anguilla. The eel out of Japan is called the Japanese, and it’s Anguilla japonica.

And then the other, Well-known commercial species is Anguilla aras, which is the Australian eel.

Shaun: They keep it simple. Well, that’s interesting because I’ve always kind of heard these, this term glass eel thrown around, but you said that’s more of a life stage.

What are the different life stages of an American eel?

Sara: Yeah, so they have a crazy life cycle. They’re opposite of the salmon who are all born in freshwater. So every single eel, you know, of those species I mentioned too are all born out in the ocean and. There’s a whole crazy backstory to that mystery.

But essentially, they’re born out in the middle of the ocean. They are first hatched into what’s called a leptocephalus, which is a little larval stage, and it looks almost like a transparent little willow leaf. And for the longest time, people didn’t even realize this was an actual eel species.

So those little babies, drift on the currents so they don’t know if they’re going to land, you know, with our American species, they can land maybe top of South America, they can end up in the Gulf, coast, or they can end up all the way up into Greenland and the Northern Canada. So they drift on the ocean in that leptocephalic stage.

And then when they get close to, the continental shelves in, in those areas and into, areas where there’s fresh water, they metamorphize into glass eels. So they change and kind of. Go from that flat-looking eel into a glass eel stage, which is clear, transparent, and this is what makes up our fishery in Maine.

Justin: So is this, what I imagine is thousands upon thousands of these and then predators come in and eat a bunch of ’em, and then the lucky few make it to the second stage of their life. Is that kind of accurate?

Sara: Up in Maine, they come in, in the very early spring. They’re actually one of the few, the first kind of migratory species to land and really signal the change in spring. So they’re, when they’re coming in, it’s absolutely by the millions, but they kind of sneak in before a lot of the other predators are here. So they come in really, really strong numbers up into the rivers.

But you are right that this is a stage that, experiences. Kind of the highest mortality in the wild. So of those little eels that come in only about 1%, maybe a little bit more end up surviving to adulthood. So, once those glass eels come in, they, they then will land, into freshwater.

You know, actually never end up coming into freshwater. They’ll spend their entire lives in saltwater marshes or saltwater areas, but they become yellow eels. So they get pigmented. They look, you know, at that point what, you know, people think of when they think of an American eel, and that’s where they can spend most of their adult lives, which is anywhere from a few years to upwards of more than 30 years in northern climates.

And then at some point, those eels decide they want to become parents and they go through one more big, life change and they become silver eels. So they’re, they get ready to go on that journey back to, You know, those mystery spots in the ocean. So they become silver, their eyes get big, and they actually will stop eating and they’ll absorb their digestive tract.

So they get one shot to breed. And they put all of their energy into that last journey out.

Shaun: Surprisingly similar to salmon, just the opposite. That’s fascinating. So let’s talk size. How big are the glass eels that are coming in? And then once they metamorphosized into this next stage, the yellow eel and then the silver eel, kind of what are we looking at size-wise for those different, stages?

Sara: So as a farmer, I typically work in grams and kilos. So to just preface, my size issues with that. So when our eels come in, in Maine, they’re, they’re really small.

They’re about the size of a toothpick and completely clear, but what’s wild is so eels, and this is what makes them really great with farming, is they like to group up together, it’s bizarre.

Like you talk to some of the harvesters who see the eel migration up close and are watching it regularly. These fish almost work as one organism. It’s really wild. So they’ll come in, it’s not just a single little glass seal, it’s hundreds of thousands of them, moving up our coast. And they’ll climb up the sides of dams up, you know, mossy areas on rocks, and they almost look like one giant eel that’s, you know, moving up these rivers and streams.

And then when they aren’t migrating, so they move with the tides when they’re fished and we can jp into that later. If, if you come into Maine in the spring, or actually anywhere along the coast, you know, again, Gulf of Mexico, they’re moving in those waters. You’ll see piles of little eels. They hang out together. They’ll sit in little eel piles with their heads poking out. They like to group up together.

Shaun: That’s wild. So then when they hit that yellow, you said yellow eel, right? I heard that correctly? Is that only when they’re in the saltwater? I was confused about that as well.

Sara: No, the yellow eel stage is the adult version of their lifecycle and they can live, in a variety of different circumstances, but it’s when they become completely pigmented and look like the adult form.

Shaun: Right. Are they actually yellow or is that just the name? I’m showing my total ignorance with eels. I, I know nothing about eels…

Sara: That most of them do have a little bit of a yellowish tint, but there are color variations, you know, we see it on the farm all the time, so.

Shaun: All right. So what size are they? How big are they? They’re not toothpick size anymore. How big are they when they’re in that yellow eel stage?

Sara: They’re a little bit larger. But they’re mostly, they look like little eels and they fill out, and they’re not too much bigger than that glass eel stage.

So when that, metamorphic that change happens, I would say, you know, they’re maybe double the size of glass eels, so you know, you’re talking 0.2 grams into 0.4 grams. So not, not a big, they’re still really pretty small when they enter that stage.

Shaun: How, how big do they get total by the time you’re harvesting and you’re ready to sell?

Sara: Well, it’s, you know, they hit a variety of different sizes. The males are typically smaller. The females can get massive, but the adult size can range from, you know, a quarter of a pound up to several pounds for female yields.

Shaun: Okay, interesting. So, when we’re talking about production, you are collecting them as in the glass eel stage, and then you’re growing them out well into the yellow eel stage, correct?

Sara: Yeah. So we work with local harvesters, so we can’t actually fish yields ourselves, so we have to purchase them from, glass yield harvesters along the coast of Maine. Those supply our farm, we bring them in, they’re completely transparent, and, and then we grow them out until they’re between a quarter pound and typically a pound is what we target for our farm

Justin: What’s the process for, I’m just trying to envision this. So you’re buying these, the at the glass eel stage, you’re purchasing those, bring them to your farm. What’s the process for capturing or collecting them?

Sara: So, the eel fishery in Maine, it’s pretty unique in that Maine is one of only two states that have the ability to fish for glass seals and are legally allowed to. But eels and American yields actually are found throughout the continental United States.

So basically from the Mississippi River east, any body of water, river, stream, lake, that ends up in the Atlantic can have yields. So a massive range. But it’s only in Maine and South Carolina that there’s a glass eel fishery for this life stage.

Shaun: Why is that? Is that because there’s just such an abundance of them that come in? Why is that limited to those two states?

Sara: Well there’s a long history. So the eel fishery, for the glass eel stage really started to develop in the late seventies, and that’s when aquaculture of eels and China really started to blow up. There used to be a fishery up and down the coast of the US but it’s a fishery that happens at night.

It happens, you know, in the springtime and oftentimes at the mouths of these rivers. So a lot of the states that don’t depend on their natural resources like we do in Maine ended up not wanting to support this fishery. Or in some cases, there are laws against eel fishing in those areas. So the two places that ended up with an eel fishery for glass eels, South Carolina and Maine, and those are both states that rely heavily on their marine economies, as you know, pretty rural states. So that to me is a lot of the reasons why, you know, Maine kept its fishery and has its fishery is, you know, we depend on our natural resources for our economy here.

Shaun: So, you’re one of the only eel grow-out farms in Maine, correct?

Sara: I am the only eel farm in Maine.

Shaun: So most of those eels that are collected in Maine, are those shipped off to Japan?

Sara: Actually it’s China. The majority of our eel fishery ends up in China, on pond farms that are happening there.

Shaun: Interesting. Yeah. So do you think that you are getting a good deal on these glass eels because they don’t need to be shipped all the way to China? Like, are they paying more over there to get them shipped over? Yeah, I

Sara: Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of things that happen when you are moving a large amount of live fish over like that is when we work directly with the harvesters, it ultimately, we’ve got a direct connection to that fishery. There are less middlemen. We don’t lose very many eels because you know, there’s one person transporting, there’s one person handling those, those fish before they come into ours.

When you have to move live products and you’re going through, you know, fisherman to a buyer, to an exporter, to, an overseas, you know, fish house, distribution center, then to a farm. You know, each of those stages, everybody’s taking a cut, you know, you have potential losses. So in terms of resource use, I think we’re doing a better job of it and having a direct relationship, with the fishery.

Shaun: Great. So the fishermen probably love having your business, huh?

Sara: Yeah, well, I think, there a lot of the harvesters we work with, are pretty happy to be connected to the farm and are just as excited about seeing their eels grow out here versus, you know, just kind of disappearing from our coast somewhere else.

Shaun: Yeah, that’s cool. We’re going to talk more about the farm in a little bit, but I want to know, I guess we could talk about it now. I went to school for aquaculture, so I’m thinking about the system and how you’re raising these fish at your farm. But

Sara: Where’d you go to school, Shaun?

Shaun: I went to the University of Rhode Island.

Sara: Okay, I went down to Auburn. My production manager also did Auburn. I don’t hear many people who say they went to school for aquaculture. That’s why I ask.

Shaun: Yeah. There were literally ones of us. When I was in school there, I think there were eight aquaculture students in my freshman class. So, yeah. And then that number went down as the years went on. But, I’m trying to envision this whole process.

Let’s get into how these are captured.

Sara: Yeah, so the eel fishery, there are two methods that are permitted in Maine for catching eels. The first one is a fly net, so that’s, A big, net that’s set along the coast with, you know, usually one part is on and one part’s in the water, and it’s a net with a cone end that, the eels get funneled down into the end.

That’s usually placed at the mouths of rivers. So when the tide comes up, And it’s nighttime, the yields will kind of move in with the tide and start climbing up, the rivers when it’s dark and cool and safe. So the fishermen, you know, are trying to catch them on that migration up, up the river. The other way that’s, fishermen can be, permitted to fish for the eels is just with a dip net.

And this is essentially like a net on a stick. So that, fishermen can then just kind of go, you know, usually they’re at, at night with a headlamp on and they’re just, you know, dipping, the eels as they’re moving. Scooping ’em out. So some fishermen like that cuz it allows some, just adaptability.

Then the other folks, you know, they’re really, their catch is determinant on the tides. So, you know, they have to, check their net, you know, when it’s exposed at low tide and that becomes kind of, a driver to their day-to-day.

Shaun: I have to look up like there’s gotta be videos of. Capturing eels somewhere online.

I gotta find that’s, that’s, it’s super interesting.

Sara: Before I started building my business out the fishery actually didn’t have a quota system. It was, you know, hit the headlines a lot for it being a cash business. And, you know, it was just nuts. But, the state, you know, in when the value of Eels jumped, which it went from, you know, a few hundred dollars to over $2,000 a pound, the state moved very quickly to put in, a really strong regulation and monitoring system.

So there’s now a quota set in place. Every single fisherman is licensed and new licenses are very, very rare. And each fishermen has a set amount of quota that is, it’s, it’s actually a really cool management system. They have like a swipe card system, so, I as a buyer, have like a credit card swiper and when a fisherman sells their quota to me, I swipe their quota card.

All the information on the volume down to a 10th of a pound, goes into a system. And that gives not only me responsibility of these eels and accountability to those eels, but the state gets, you know, Every, every day they have up to date information on, on what part of the quotas been caught, who’s caught it, you know, where the fishery is, sitting at.

So it’s pretty cool.

Shaun: That is cool. Have you ever thought about, like, but when you initially got into this, did you think like that you were go also going to be trying to get a license and go out there and catch your own?

Sara: I’m an aquaculturist. I was very upfront with the harvesters too. I was like, I’m not looking to fish eels, like, you guys know how to do that.

I know how to grow fish. So I’m, I’m sticking to that.

Shaun: Nice. All right, so you go swipe your card. Reserve your fish. And then they, how do they bring them over? Do they just put ’em in big tanks and ship and truck ’em over?

Sara: Yeah. So most of the harvesters, use coolers to hold their eels, with air stones or oxygen.

And then those folks, once they’ve caught a volume that they’re comfortable with, they’ll bring ’em over to our farm. We swipe them into a holding system. And then, once we’re ready to roll, we actually, and this is, you know, speaks to the ULA regulation within the fishery is, when we move our eels onto the farm, you know, the Department of Marine Resources, are there to see us weigh those fish in.

So, The same way that any fish leaving the state, there’s actually a weigh-in process when they’re exported to. So,, the state of Maine takes the ULA regulation of the fishery very, very seriously. So, and, you know, that helps support our business and making sure that we have eels for the future.

Justin: I was just thinking, it’s super important and when you say the cost goes from a few hundred dollars to, $2,000 or more, you could see a lot of people trying to take advantage of that, and mismanagement and lack of regulations could have really done a, a lot more harm than good.

Shaun: Yeah, it sounds like they jumped on it pretty quick. That’s good. Yeah. So, what’s the process for grow out once you get them to your farm? KiI know you probably have some, you know, some secrets that you don’t wanna share, but I’d love to hear kind of the general process for how you grow out these eels. How long it takes, you know, when they’re ready for harvest, and then kind of what happens post-harvest.

Sara: Yeah. So, so eels, you know, because we’re dealing with a wild-caught fishery, it’s a really long grow-out time. So to grow our eels to market, it’s anywhere from seven months to two years, and within any given year class, you’re going to have some fish that reach market really quick and some that take longer.

So on our farm, at any given time, you have an overlap of up to three-year classes, so the biggest, most important thing is on each year class, when they come in, is keeping those fish isolated, making sure the farm is, you know, has biosecurity protocols to make sure that, you know, those fish stay healthy throughout their life cycle.

So when we bring in our eels, they actually go into a separate system to start, that’s our Glass eel system. And that’s where we do kind of all the initial grow out until they’re about five grams and then they go out to the larger part of our farm. So, a lot of the early stage, you know, we can, right when they come into the river, that tends to be when we have the most risk, and the most potential loss.

But we aim to have less than 10% mortality, through that phase of our production cycle. So it’s still a really, really good use of a natural resource like that. And

Shaun: And your facility is a RAS system?

Sara: Oh yeah. I’ve done pond farming, I’ve done oyster farming, I’ve done algae farming. But I, have always loved, recirculating systems. Mostly, you know, for not only optimizing growing conditions for the organism that you’re working with, but also, you know, in utilizing, again, coming back to that resource idea, like our inputs and our outputs, and you know, that’s, A really cool thing when it comes to farming is making things super-efficient. That’s what I love about RAS systems.

Shaun: Yeah, and I think you’ll get this, there’s something about, like a system like this, and this is going to be so nerdy for me, but when, you know, I, when I was in school, we, we had to design and build a couple of small, little systems for like single tank systems.

And there’s something about like putting everything together, putting all the pipes together and the pumps and all the different. And, and like it when it works. There’s this feeling that is really hard to describe. It just, it makes you feel really, really good when it starts to work, when the water’s flowing and the filters are on and everything.

It’s just like you feel like you have such control over what you’re doing it, and I’m sure you, you understand the feeling that I’m getting at. You don’t get that with a pond system.

Sara: Yeah and it’s a long-term investment, like when you get a system that operates and is operating really well and like, it’s, it’s really cool when you have an established biofilter, which this, you know, gets really nerdy. With the land-based is how good your fish grow when you have kind of everything aligned. And everything kind of tuned just right. It’s, it’s really rewarding. Yeah. So, we have a land-based system. What’s cool with eels is they’ve been grown in land-based aquaculture since like the 1980s.

The Dutch were doing it and really developing the systems for these fish, and we really, we looked to them to see what, what they’ve been doing, what worked and, and brought, that system design here.

Shaun: So how are they raised in China and Japan? Are they grown differently or are those mostly land-based systems as well?

Sara: No, each of those regions actually grows them differently. So, in most of China, they’re doing pond aquaculture. So that’s kind of, you know, small ponds, large ponds, you know, shallow, yeah. under that, in Japan they do, kind of a combo. It’s actually a lot of them are in greenhouses, so, it’s like a pond, but you’ve got a little bit more control and they’re in greenhouses, with aeration.

So it all, it sometimes reminds me a little bit of like, shrimp farming where they’ve got, covered ponds.

Shaun: Do you know how they do it in Australia?

Sara: Australia. I don’t think that they’re doing much farming yet. I think they’ve made some attempts, but I’m not, As far as I’m aware.

Shaun: I’m just going by the different species names that we discussed earlier.

That’s cool that there’s a lot of different methods for raising it and you know, we have listeners all over the world, so I’m sure they’d be interested to hear that. Maybe there’s someone in China who’s thinking, Ooh, maybe we can, you know, develop a RAS system for this.

This is why we do this, Justin.

Sara: Yeah. Well, and there’s, and there’s definitely, you’re seeing more, eel systems, even in, in Asia, move towards land-based systems with eels. Again, it’s control, you know, when there’s uncertainties with climate and shifts like that, there’s a lot more of a desire to control what we can, where we can with farming.

Shaun: Yeah. And if you have the investment to be able to meet the kind of financial challenges with it, then it’s definitely the way to go, I think, because of that control that you have over the environment and everything. Very cool. okay. What about harvest? How do you harvest these things and then what do you do with ’em?

Sara: So our eels, they have a variable time to market. So what ends up happening is, as we grow our farm and production, we’re essentially doing weekly harvest, year-round. So, we just, we pull off those nice plump fat yields, every single week to get ready to process them, send to market.

Shaun: So how do you grade them? Do you have machinery that helps you kind of separate them by size or do you just go in and just pick them out?

Sara: Early on, so, you know, when we first started the business, everything was done by hand. So we were, you know, scooping out the fish, hand sorting and grading.

Now we’re using, you know, a grader and sorters and we actually, you know, fish pump, everything. And, and eels are, they’re, they’re really, I’ve. I’ve worked with oysters, I’ve worked with tilapia in Africa, and these are some of the toughest fish I’ve ever worked with. Like, we’ll, we’ll grade them, move them, harvest ’em, stock ’em back in the tanks, and they start eating right away.

They don’t care.

Shaun: Nice. Yeah, I would imagine that would be the attitude of an eel.

Sara: Yeah, they’re a beautiful fish to work with in the production sense, but also on the marketing side and, and the products they end up in. It’s, it’s a pretty beautiful fish overall.

That’s perfect transition

Shaun: Yeah. You, you teed me up, Sara. You know what’s coming next. So let’s talk about the marketplace. Let’s talk about, global and local, because you are in Maine. And I, I would imagine that the, the demand for eel here in Maine is probably pretty good, but may not be like what the demand is in Asia or other places.

So, what are we looking at on a local level? The marketplace, how it works, kind of what, you know, what the demand is, where it’s going and then on a more global scale, we can get into that afterwards.

Sara: Yeah. You know, Maine, we’re a small rural state with, you know, a million people.

So, most of our products and manufacturing products in Maine, our seafood ends up going out of state just because our population is low. So, we’re completely focused with our production on the US so I, you know, I, really looked at, at this eel opportunity as something that can happen now, and it, it couldn’t have happened 20 years ago because, you know, Americans weren’t eating sushi.

It was early 2000s that you really saw sushi start to grow and Americans got more and more exposed to eel through mostly sushi, however, saying that I also have learned a lot in the last 10 years that, eel is widely eaten. You know, when I mentioned those species like Australian and, and Japanese and European, all of those areas and all of those regions of the world have a connection to this species.

And, with that have, you know, dishes and traditions, that are connected to eating this fish. So it’s pretty cool.

Shaun: So most of your eels are going to go to the sushi market in America?

Sara: Yep, exactly. So, we’ve been importing, eel, you know, close to 11 million pounds annually for the last, you know, 10 years.

So we’re just looking to peel off some of that market with a high-quality, local, accountable eel.

Justin: There’s a good story behind that too. If you think of who you’re selling to and consumers are asking questions and sometimes to say, yeah, well yeah, this is a US-based, raised and harvested product.

Sometimes that’s, they like to hear that story.

Shaun: That’s interesting too because I feel like, I mean, Americans love stuff that’s made in America, right? But we also love to poach other people’s cultures and foods and everything. So it’s really unique to be able to go to a sushi restaurant in America that says this fish is an American product when you’re ordering sushi.

It’s just so interesting. You know, I feel like that would be really enticing for these restaurants to use as marketing tactics to say that “you’re eating Japanese food that you wouldn’t think would be, would come from America, but this is actually produced here in America.”

So that’s, that’s a really good selling point. That’s cool.

Sara: Yeah. No, absolutely. And also like consumer awareness on, on quality and local is, and even acceptance of aquaculture has shifted so much in the last 10 years and that, right. Well, especially in Maine, right? Oh, yeah. Yeah. But I mean, it’s huge in Maine.

Yeah. The other big thing that we’re able to really tap into is that eel you know, when it comes to traceability and issues with mislabeling and, you know issues of, you know, poaching and uncertainty, like that’s a big thing that, that we, can tap into is that, you know, there’s, No other eel that has, you know, such a connection to its fishery and its source than our products.

So it takes, takes some of that uncertainty off the table.

Shaun: Yeah, for sure. So what do you know about kind of the global market for eel? You know, what, if we’re looking for more international trade between some of these, because like I said, we do have people that are from all over the world listening, and I’m sure they would love to hear a little bit about kind of the eels place in the global seafood marketplace.

Sara: Yeah. So, eels are eaten widely. The largest market is, between Japan and China. So, you know, originally when this fishery and the aquaculture reveal started, it was, Japan was by and far the largest consumer reveal. Now it’s, you know, between China, Japan, and Korea. You’ve got a lot of eel consumption, but then, you know, across Europe, eel is consumed less so than it used to be. But there’s still a lot of tradition in that, in some of its consumption there. And. yeah, I’d say globally those are kind of really the two big, big market opportunities.

Shaun: And are there other, well, I think, I know, I know the answer to this, but what, what other species of eel are there in this available in the seafood marketplace?

Do you know? We’ve been kind of just kind of laser-focused on this species.

Sara: Well, it’s, you know, I pay attention to, other Anguilla species. So, you’ll see, the Japanese eel, the European eel are really the, the other most common eel species that are, are found in the marketplace.

Shaun: Gotcha. Gotcha. Okay. I don’t want to go for too long, but I have a couple more things that I want to touch on.

One is just this huge mystery of eel reproduction. It’s so interesting to me that in 2023 when everybody just feels like they figured everything out. The machines are taking over, Skynet is coming and we still don’t know anything about like, the reproduction of this species, right?

Like what is, what is with the big mystery, why is it such a mystery on how these eels are, how they reproduce?

Sara: I, I couldn’t tell you if I knew I was, that’s the mystery, right? That’s the whole thing.

Shaun: I think I was really hoping we would solve the mystery today. Yeah. Oh man.

Sara: Killing me. Honestly, I was just talking about this the other day. I think this is one of the things that sometimes life great mysteries, it, it sometimes hooks people in. And I think it also for me as a grower and, you know, connected to this fish more and more every day, like, It leaves this really massive amount of appreciation for the species and respect for the species is that despite, you know, all of our technology, all of our knowledge, all of our, you know, globalization that out of all 15 of these species at Yale, nobody has seen them breed in the wild.

Like that’s pretty special that you can evade, you know, our, you know, sponge of knowledge and invasion into every part of the world. So, good for eels.

Shaun: Yeah. It’s so interesting. Yeah. That’s, that’s so fascinating to me. It’s like at some point in the future, someone’s going to like figure it out, right? Someone’s going to like crack the code and everyone in the seafood industry is just going to have this massive celebration and everyone else in the world is not going to have any idea what’s going on. But, this is so interesting to me because, as I said, the second thing that I know about eels, besides how delicious they are, is that eels, at least when I was working with BAP, we were not able to certify eel facilities because one of the requirements in the standard is that you have to be able to identify the hatchery that your larval fish comes from. And there are no eel hatcheries because of this giant mystery where no one knows how they reproduce. So that was super interesting to me because I did have someone reach out to me and they were like, we wanna get BAP certified. And it just brought up this whole thing of like, we can’t do eels for this one reason.

And I’m curious kind of, I know that you guys are interested in looking into kind of these certification programs for your farm. So what is your take on this whole, I don’t know what the word is, I guess not really issue, but what is your take on this situation and not just with BAP kind of overall with these things?

Sara: What I understand is it’s a super complicated fishery. So that is oftentimes difficult for certification bodies. Like I get that. You know, we also kind of span, I was just thinking about this earlier too, like, we don’t necessarily fit into ASC, we don’t fit into MSC because we’re spanning across both of ’em.

We are connected to wild fishery, but we’re land-based aquaculture and, you know, nobody wants to take us. So, but one thing that we actually connected with was in Europe. They have done, a lot of work with their fishery and their industry to recognize the sustainable farming practices that are happening within, the EU countries.

So they came up with what’s called the Sustainable Eel Group, and it’s taken kind of the bits from, MSC and ASC and BAP and really kind of said, all right, well, if you guys can’t recognize or don’t wanna certify us, let’s take your practices and apply it to these fisheries and aquaculture and, you know, processing organizations.

So we’ve actually been working with the Sustainable Eel Group to bring that certification body to the United States into our eel. So, that was kind of how I approached this issue is like, well, all right, I want a third party to recognize what we’re doing, and to really audit us and, and have some sort of standard that we can, we can help build, but also if another eel farm comes in to make sure that they’re following the same sort of standards as us.

Yeah. To make sure that the species remains sustainable. So that was kind of how I approached it is, we’ll work on our own effort. And also, you know, talk to, you know, groups like the BAP Certifiers on like, all right, like, maybe we can help you connect with this group and you can get comfortable around that sourcing.

Because you know the stuff that Maine’s doing with their fishery. Is really unique, and amongst the world, and it’s being looked at globally, but, not every single eel fishery is the same in the world. And, and that’s, you know, a, a fair thing to say, but it’s hard to evaluate.

Shaun: Yeah. That’s super fascinating. All right, well, we’re getting close to time. So at this point, Justin, do you have anything else that you wanna bring up?

Justin: I mean, before, I guess you ask some of your wrap up questions, when we were talking about, you know, the marketplace and what people, you know, there’s different types of recipes, people see eel and sushi, but what is your favorite eel recipe? What are the products?

Sara: So one thing when I started building my business out is, You know, it was hard to find someone to want to process my eels in the US so I actually ended up having to fully integrate processing into our farm.

So we were able to sell our eels live, to a certain kind of level of chef that wants to handle live eel, but we also filet out our products. So it’s a really beautiful filet-out eel butterfly, that tends to go into sushi, or to a variety of different chefs that want the freedom to kind of take that eel without worrying about having a live eel in their kitchen and make beautiful recipes.

But then we’re also, and this is one of my favorite easy go-to things, is we’re smoking our eel, which is amazing. This was the first way I ever had the eels that, I grew in my basement when I first started. I smoked ’em and like was blown away by this fish. So that’s one of my favorite ways to have our product: smoked.

It’s super easy. It’s the best way to impress people at a party as you bring your eel charcuteries platter. But my other kind of favorite, especially in the winter or like cold, rainy days, is I’ll take, Shin Ramen, which is that like super spicy, just little, you know, ramen that you can get at the grocery store.

And I’ll take one of our filets, cook it in the toaster oven with like bacha sauce, which is a Japanese barbecue sauce that’s really blown up in the last couple years.

Justin: That sounds tasty. Yeah. I think we have some of that Japanese barbecue sauce at our house. My wife saw it. She’s like, what is this? And I was like, oh, let’s get it!

Sara: Yeah, it’s awesome.

Shaun: I think we may need to take a trip up to the farm to see the system. For me to see the system and for Justin to eat some smoked eel. That’s probably not too far away. Maybe I’ll get a bunch of that for our big 4th of July barbecue that we have. That’d be good.

Sara: Well, eel on the grill too. I just did that the other day. Like, you know, you could also just throw it on your grill and it is phenomenal. The skin crisps up. Or an air fryer, like air frying eel, crispy, delicious.

Shaun: This is the problem with doing these, at least we did it after lunch today. Like, it doesn’t even matter now before lunch. I’m so hungry again.

Do you have anything else that you wanna get out there, while you have this platform? Anything that our listeners should or need to know about eel?

Sara: Oh man. There’s there’s so much. There’s so much. It’s a really exciting fish. You know, the way that we grow our eels, the products that we produce.

You know, one thing I will say is I had no idea how good eel could be until I grew it myself. And that’s another thing with local production and local businesses, is sometimes you don’t realize the quality of product that’s being brought into the US is not the best, that it could be. And that was eye-opening for me.

Shaun: Awesome. So what would you say to someone, either here in the US or elsewhere, in any other part of the world, what would you say to someone who is listening to this episode and are excited and intrigued and they maybe wanna get into eel production? What would you say? Like, where does someone start?

What advice would you give them?

Sara: I laugh because it, so it took me 10 years to build this business out and that was with, you know, I was 10 years in the industry of aquaculture. It’s building and producing and farming it. It’s not for the weak of heart. I’m sure you guys probably talk about this a lot on your podcast, but, you know, farming is, whether it’s land-based, agriculture, farming our seafood is, it’s really, really tough work, and takes a lot of commitment. So I would, anybody who’s, who’s thinking about dabbling, I would say grow some in a fish tank in your basement first. And make sure you want that lifestyle.

Justin: So again, to kind of piggyback off what Shaun was asking, if any of our listeners want to…

Shaun: If they decide they want to live that lifestyle?

Justin: Yeah. Well, if they have more questions that weren’t answered during our segment here, what’s the best way for them to get in contact with you?

Sara: If they’re interested in getting some of our products and learning more, they can check out our website, which is americanunagi.com. That’s a good place to start.

Justin: Perfect. We’ll link to that in the show notes, so we’ll make it really easy for those listeners to find all that information.

Shaun: Well, Sarah, thank you so much. It took us a little while to kind of get this going, but we got it on the schedule. We got it on tape, and I’m really, really happy that you were able to join us and tell us all about this super interesting, amazing species of fish.

So thank you so much for joining us.