Elver Aquaculture is Gaining Steam

by Laurie Schreiber

Fyke fine mesh net set for elver run. Typical net arrangement used by independent licensed fishermen who fish young of year elver quota. The live eels are exported to Asia. Fishermen’s Voice file photo

NORFOLK, Va.—In 2017, elver (glass eel) harvesters netted 9,282 pounds for an estimated value of $12 million.

Those elvers were sent overseas to Asia farms to be grown into eels.

For some U.S. and Canada interests, it would make more sense to grow the elvers to marketable eel size in North America, rather than shipping them overseas.

At its Oct. 17 meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) heard from Mitch Feigenbaum on efforts to do just that.

Feigenbaum is a member of the ASMFC’s eel advisory panel and a principal of the Delaware Valley Fish Company, a leading exporter of elvers, eels, and other seafood located in Norristown, Penn. He said he’s involved with other ventures, almost all of whom are glass eel quota-holders in Maine and Canada, with a focus on one goal—“to transform North America’s $25 million glass eel fishery into a world-class aquaculture and fish-processing industry worth $250 million.” He continued, “Presently, glass eel harvesters ship their eels alive to Asia, for Chinese farmers to use as seed material for their vast eel farming industry. They add 10 times worth of value turning our raw goods into a final product.”

Feigenbaum said his group wants to make as much as possible of that finished product in North America.

“The eel farming industry we envision would create hundreds of jobs,” he said.

Since 2014, he said, the group has invested $1.5 million in internally run experiments, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to develop feed and farming methods. The plan now, he said, is to develop a pilot farm in 2019, and possibly open one or more commercial facilities in 2020 or 2021. The commercial plants, he said, would be located where glass eel fishing already takes place, but the group is willing to make available its proprietary feed and farming methods beyond Canada and Maine.

Management regions for the American eel population that occurs in the territorial seas and inland waters along the coast from Maine to Florida. Only Maine has commercial harvest quota. Courtesy Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

In a related development, Sarah Rademaker discussed her progress at American Unagi, a company she started that has been growing eels in Maine for the past three years. She and Feigenbaum asked the ASMFC to consider allocating a quota for eel aquaculture in an addendum to its eel management plan.

Rademaker said she’s been in the industry for over 15 years, both internationally and domestically. She said she “saw what was happening with glass eels being shipped abroad and bringing back a questionable product.” Maine farms can do better and also provide jobs, she said. In 2014, she said, she started with a couple of tanks in her basement, and subsequently built a pilot facility at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole. She had her first product for the domestic market in 2016, she said.

“I’ve also had the opportunity to get a talented group together of advisors from the fisheries, seafood, and aquaculture to help this business progress,” she said. “I’m really excited about it. The last three years have been super successful. We’re looking to get out of the pilot facility and into a commercial facility. Part of that is having a secure source of glass eels….This can be a valid industry for the U.S.”

On a related topic, Jeff Pierce, an advisor to the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association, told the ASMFC that new measures such as the swipe card system have dramatically improved the fishery by putting a stop to poaching. He asked the ASMFC to consider increasing Maine’s glass eel quota from 9,688 pounds, which has been in place since 2015, to the 2014 quota of 11,479 pounds.

The eel management plan’s Addendum IV, finalized in 2014, established the Maine glass eel quota of 9,688 pounds, about half of the catch for 2013, which was 18,081 pounds.

In the end, the ASMFC voted to maintain the current quota for 2018. It also initiated an addendum to consider alternative allocations, management triggers, and coastwide caps relative to the current management program for both the yellow and glass eel commercial fisheries starting for the 2019 fishing season.