On this episode of Dan Does, host Daniel Geneen visits American Unagi, the country’s only glass eel farm. Founder Sara Rademaker created her operation when she learned there was not a single eel growing facility within the U.S. Before American Unagi, glass eels eaten in America were caught locally as babies, flown internationally to be raised in facilities overseas, and then flown back to be served in American restaurants. Her facility aims to change that.
“The first eels that I grew were in my basement,” says Rademaker. “I hear all good startups happen there.” The operation began when she noted that the glass eel fisheries in Maine were among the most valuable fisheries in the US. Bags of eels can be sold for up to $2,000 a pound, so she knew there was a market.
Once a year Maine’s fishermen set out nets to catch the tiny transparent eels that are migrating along the shoreline. They filter, weigh, clean and sell them to Rademaker, who introduces them to her tanks, and starts the long process of growing them to be sold across the country, live or smoked.
In Maine, a wild eel can take five years to 30 years to reach maturity, but the eels in American Unagi’s tanks can mature from as little as seven months to two years thanks to her special attention and care to their habitat. “Our eels are happy; that way they grow the best and they taste the best.”
Once they’ve grown close to market size, the bigger eels move to a room with bigger tanks and bigger feed. They then get graded by hand and sorted, and those that need time to grow are put back in the tanks. The mature eels get shipped out live to restaurants and chefs when they’re ready, or they get shipped two hours south to Community Shellfish in Bremen, Maine, where owner Charlie Walsh processes them and prepares them for smoking. After butterflying, cleaning, and deboning the eels, he vacuum seals some to sell as is, and smokes the rest for those who wish to buy them ready to eat.