Slimy, smuggled, and worth top dollar: Can one Maine entrepreneur break into the crime-ridden global market for eel?

As the price of eel—and unagi—heats up, so do efforts to understand and save this tricky fish. 

It’s hard for aquaculturist Sara Rademaker to pin down the precise moment she fell in love with eels. 

It may have been when a fisherman first gifted her a handful of squirming baby eels—also called glass eels or elvers—or the hours she spent with them, raising them to adulthood in a giant tank in her basement. Or it might have been when she killed them, cooked them in a borrowed smoker, and took a bite. 

“When I had that eel, I was like, ‘I have to grow this fish,’” Rademaker said. “People get obsessed with eels. They like to work with them, and then it just, like, engulfs them.”

Six years after that first bite, Rademaker stared down into a tank in her eel business’ headquarters in rural Maine, watching sinuous, footlong eels weave figure-eights under the surface. The eels’ slim bodies tumbled together in a blur of green backs and stormcloud-gray bellies. When they were netted as glass eels in 2018—legally, she stresses—they were worth more than $2,400 per pound. 

Sara Rademaker of American Unagi holds a vile of elvers to the light in Walpole, Maine. May 2020

In 2014, Sara Rademaker started American Unagi in rural Maine, now the largest commercial eel farm in the United States.

These eels won’t naturally breed in captivity, so all farm-raised eels must be first caught in the wild as babies: a biological quirk that means even a small handful can be worth hundreds of dollars.

In the early days, back when Rademaker wasn’t yet certain if she could build a viable eel business, her fledgling facility once lost power during a windstorm. She returned to a dark, silent room, and her heart sank. Silence means no air pumps or running water, and she had been gone for hours. 

“With other fish, it’s like 20 minutes, and you have dead, floating fish,” she said. When she turned on the backup pump, she couldn’t believe it: All her eels had survived. “The way that these things are biologically built is just mind-blowing,” said Rademaker. “I kept waiting for something to say, ‘No, this isn’t going to work.’ But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Eels are a polarizing fish: For many, their slime and snakelike motion are repulsive, evoking childhood fears of a toothed creature lurking in the mud. For Rademaker and countless others, they’re an intriguing, ancient, and delicious species. 

“They are already a species that naturally travels millions of miles. They’re built for this.”

In many parts of the world, eel populations are currently endangered, decimated in part by overfishing, pollution, and the damming of rivers where they’ve historically lived. Against this backdrop, Rademaker is fighting to carve out a transparent, sustainable sliver of a crime-ridden global eel aquaculture market that, as of 2017, was worth billions of dollars. By raising only legally caught elvers to maturity, Rademaker is betting that transparency and traceability will win market share—and all the better if she casts light on this deeply secretive and often infuriatingly complex industry.

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As a small band of self-described “eel people” including Rademaker scramble to improve the industry, they do it with the knowledge that their battle is an uphill one. They struggle to shine sunlight onto this under-the-radar creature, some species of which have been deeply exploited for decades, often to the point of population collapse. Using court documents; rare access to restricted labs around the world; and extensive interviews with biologists, law enforcement agents, environmentalists, and aquaculturists, this story is a journey into the profound economic and cultural value of the enigmatic eel—and how far some will go to control it.

Fighting for a fishery

Cultures across the world, including North America’s Indigenous peoples, have eaten eel for millennia, while unagi kabayaki—an immensely popular Japanese eel dish that drives much of the global demand for elvers—was first consumed at a Shinto shrine in 1399.  Eel farming first started in Japan in 1879, gradually spreading to other Asian countries including China, South Korea, and Taiwan. According to 2017 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, aquaculture produces 96 percent of the world’s eel supply. As of 2013, according to one report, hundreds of aquaculture farms across China produced about 85 percent of that.

In the 1970s, as the popularity of unagi ratcheted up and eel farms proliferated across Asia, enterprising fishermen around the world scrambled to cash in. When the number of Japanese glass eels crashed and the per-pound price skyrocketed, buyers started looking elsewhere for a cheaper option to resupply their aquaculture farms. 

Half a world away, they quickly found two: American and European eel, both species that have been eaten, generally smoked or jellied, for centuries. One quirk of European and American eels is that they breed together in the open ocean, in a gyre of currents near Bermuda called the Sargasso Sea. Once born, the tiny larvae, which mature into willow-leaf-shaped leptocephali, ride currents toward freshwater rivers across the Western Hemisphere. At that point, they have grown into glass eels. 

Graduate students at Kitasato University’s Ocean Research Institute run DNA tests on unagi samples. March 2021

Graduate students at Kitasato University’s Ocean Research Institute run DNA tests on unagi samples.

Karen Pinchin

“They are already a species that naturally travels millions of miles. They’re built for this,” said Rademaker. And while some connoisseurs maintain they can taste differences between the three species—European, Japanese and American—only a DNA test can reliably identify a cooked sample. 

So for those in the eel trade, it came as no surprise when elver buyers began arriving in small towns in southern Europe asking after glass eels. In those early days, it was a loosely regulated business: Buyers often paid in cash, and fishermen learned not to ask too many questions. 

By the mid-1990s, native populations of European eels, like their Japanese cousins, started to nosedive, and in 2010, the European Union banned exports of live glass eels under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). By then, the numbers of returning baby glass eels there had fallen by about 95 percent since the 1980s. 

“Illegal trade in European eels, which was huge, more than 100 tons a year traded to Asia—that has never stopped.”

“Eels are no longer the familiar sight in European and Caribbean waters that they once were,” said Willem Wijnstekers, former CITES secretary-general. Yet despite the ban, commerce continued. 

“Illegal trade in European eels, which was huge, more than 100 tons a year traded to Asia—that has never stopped,” said Florian Stein, a researcher who monitors eel crime for the Brussels-based Sustainable Eel Group. “It was just completely hidden after the ban.”

Ever since that first crash of Japanese eel populations, organized crime and eel smuggling have plagued police agencies worldwide. And as demand for wild-caught glass eels crept across Asia, demand eventually started surging in the United States. 

Elver eel held inside a blue net in Walpole, Maine. May 2020

Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Maine is home to the United States’ largest and most profitable glass eel fishery, although many coastal states allow recreational anglers to catch adult eels for personal consumption, with some allowing larger fish to be caught and sold commercially.

American eels can be found in waters off Greenland to Venezuela. Maine is home to the United States’ largest and most profitable glass eel fishery, although many coastal states allow recreational anglers to catch adult eels for personal consumption, with some allowing larger fish to be caught and sold commercially. In addition to Maine, the only other state with a legal glass eel fishery is South Carolina; in other U.S. states, catching them in the wild for profit is illegal and considered poaching. In most states, possessing or transporting glass eels across state lines without a permit is considered a federal crime. Now, experts say that lesser-known eel habitats, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, are largely unprepared for their own incoming eel boom—and the poaching and violence that has already arrived and is still to come. 

Rademaker started American Unagi in 2014; hers is now the United States’ largest commercial eel farm. When first approached for an interview, the trim, serious Indiana native was happy to entertain questions about her business, but grew guarded when asked for a tour of her facility. Her operation’s round, plastic tanks are standard aquaculture gear, but she and her staff have customized most of the technology that keeps these eels healthy and growing—Rademaker says it takes anywhere from seven months to two years to grow a single eel to a harvestable size—and she worries about leaking proprietary secrets. 

“In this industry, everybody’s tight-lipped,” she said.

Eels are the ultimate “black box” of global seafood, said Rademaker. It’s nearly impossible to know where glass eels come from, where they are raised, or the conditions in which they were raised, which poses a problem for both conservationists and law enforcement. It also means it’s a hard species for the average consumer to understand. 

“Eels are not a species that is cute and cuddly that people want to protect because it looks like a panda bear. You have to have a buy-in, or an economic value attached to something like the eel to want to protect it.”

“Eels are not a species that is cute and cuddly that people want to protect because it looks like a panda bear,” she said. “You have to have a buy-in, or an economic value attached to something like the eel to want to protect it.”

Both eels and eel poachers have long managed to slink along the margins of the seafood world, said Rademaker, which is one reason why she’s agreed to go on the record. For years, reports of eel crime and badly managed stocks have given Maine’s eel industry a rough reputation, said Rademaker.

“Maine has consistently had to fight to justify this fishery: ‘How can you guarantee that poaching is not going to happen?’” she said. “That’s an absolute bummer.”  

Once caught, most of Maine’s glass eels are quickly shipped overseas, primarily to Asia. Once there, they enter a complex supply chain riven with smuggling and corruption. In attempting to build a simple and transparent supply chain—her eels are caught, raised, and then sold locally—Rademaker hopes to introduce a new level of accountability into the tight-lipped industry. “Even though it’s a complicated fishery … that almost became a driver, to be like, ‘Okay, this needs to be done better.’”

Suitcases full of smuggled eels

Just outside Ellsworth, Maine, fisherman Darrell Young sat down at a table in his wood-paneled kitchen, amid cozy visual cacophony. Dozens of woven baskets hung from the ceiling, and worn cake molds, fading photographs, and knickknacks adorned every surface. 

Young has held a license to catch elvers since 1994, back when it was worth next to nothing. For decades, he scraped a living from the ocean, digging clams and setting nets for herring. In a maroon pullover and camouflage hat, Young smoked languidly as he talked, clasping a mugful of black coffee. 

A jacket emblazoned with a giant eel and “Maine Elver Fishermen Association” was draped on the back of a kitchen chair. Young founded his group in 2012, when it seemed Maine might lose the state’s legal fishery altogether. Concerned about the industry’s rampant poaching and violence, Maine’s marine commissioner had publicly debated closing it. 

Fisherman Darrel Young inside his wood-paneled kitchen outside Ellsworth, Maine. March 2021

Darrell Young makes a cup of coffee in his kitchen near Ellsworth, Maine. Young founded the Maine Elver Fishermen Association in 2012 and is one of 425 fishermen allowed to catch the state’s lucrative elvers.

Karen Pinchin

For two to three weeks in May 2019, Young and his wife, along with 423 other license holders—not counting Indigenous fishermen, whose catches are monitored by their own tribal nations—scattered across the banks of rivers and streams to set their stationary fyke nets. The Youngs caught elvers for $25 per pound in 2000, then $185 per pound in 2010. In 2012, when Maine prices hit $2,000 a pound—back when there were no catch limits—Young said he made $25,000 on the season’s first night. 

“We made a boodle,” said Michael Klingerman, an elver fisherman who often works with the couple. One fisherman, they say, made nearly a million dollars that year.

Around the same time, Young noticed an influx of Taiwanese and Chinese buyers arriving in town, ready to do business. “They were showing up at elver rivers and wanting to buy eels, didn’t have a license or anything, but they paid cash,” he said. “They just jumped on the plane with a suitcase filled with eels. Put oxygen in it, and they can lug it right on the plane.”

“They were showing up at elver rivers and wanting to buy eels, didn’t have a license or anything, but they paid cash.”

Elvers can breathe through their skin, as long as they’re in a wet, oxygen-rich environment. This makes them easy to smuggle. Airport scanners are designed to catch explosives, weapons, and drugs, not a dense mass of organic material. Eel smugglers have been caught mislabeling entire shipments as other products or building false bottoms onto wooden pallets, said Sustainable Eel Group’s Stein. One common trick used by traffickers, he said, is to pack a refrigerated shipment with a legal export on top—like mussels—concealing bags of living glass eels squirming underneath.

In those giddy days, as fishermen guarded nets with rifles, Young toted stacks of $50 and $100 bills. They often sold their hauls to the media-dubbed “elver kingpin” Bill Sheldon. One night, Young said he took a photo of Sheldon, sitting in his truck, with a bank-packed sack of $250,000 in cash on his lap. In October 2017, Sheldon was charged with trafficking elvers, a story that grabbed local and national headlines. He could have served up to five years in prison, but was ultimately sentenced to six months.

Elver prices have only continued to spike since Young got his start. “If you and I could make $100,000 in a week—yeah, I’d work my ass off to do that,” said Maine’s former Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe. With prices as high as they are, he said, it’s human nature that people will try to catch and sell as many glass eels as they can, legal or otherwise. “If you can sell all the animals you get to China for $2,000 a pound, why not try to sell 100 pounds rather than 50?” Lapointe asked.

“If you can sell all the animals you get to China for $2,000 a pound, why not try to sell 100 pounds rather than 50?”

Young said anyone who thinks elver quotas should be further reduced—which includes the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate commission that oversees state elver quotas and that refused a 2018 petition to increase Maine’s allowable catch—doesn’t know what they’re talking about. He scoffed at the suggestion that Maine’s glass eel fishery is unsustainable, and that they’re pulling too many babies from the water to sustain the population. “Bullshit,” he said. Every spring, he said, he sees giant clouds of glass eels migrating upriver. Scientists are simply bad at catching them, he added. 

At his kitchen table, Young shuffled a stack of surveys, sent by a researcher doing her PhD on the global eel market. She’s asked local elver fishermen to respond to a series of questions, and Young showed me the form. To the question, “Have you experienced any conflicts while fishing?” he checked “yes” and “with other harvesters.” To the follow-up question “How were these conflict(s) resolved?” he responded, simply, “I get my way.”

“Jimmy eel Man” and “Ruben Turtle Man”

Early in 2013, federal law enforcement already knew Brooklyn-based businessman Tommy Water Zhou was up to no good. That year, he applied for and received a dealer’s license from the state of Maine. Valid for one year, it allows the holder to buy and sell legally caught Maine elvers. 

Within months of getting that license, Zhou tried to illegally buy elvers from two undercover officers—posing as Virginia eel poachers—at his Brooklyn seafood warehouse. Zhou had been targeted by Operation Broken Glass, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) sting, run alongside state officers and the FBI, aimed at catching interstate wildlife traffickers.

With legal market prices running between $2,000 and $2,500 a pound in 2013, Zhou was offering $1,500 per pound for black-market eels, according to court documents. His office was a safe place to do business, he said, as long as no one had a “big mouth.” A few days later, he told the undercover officers they could work as a team, but said he would “pay $200,000 to have [them] killed” if he was betrayed. In April that year, Zhou, under surveillance by law enforcement, exported 11 boxes of undeclared elvers from New York to Hong Kong via JFK International Airport. 

As of late 2018, a joint federal and state operation had caught 18 individuals collectively responsible for $5 million of illegally trafficked elvers, including businessman Tommy Zhou.

In 2014, still under surveillance by federal authorities building their case, Zhou and an employee made the six-and-a-half-hour drive from Brooklyn to Maine to buy elvers. The pair was leaving Hilltop Bait in Wiscasset, a well-known local eel-buying depot 45 minutes north of Portland, when two state Marine Patrol Officers pulled them over. 

In the trunk of Zhou’s black Toyota Sienna was a large white cooler containing about 5 pounds of live elvers, along with spruce boughs intended to protect them from bumping around on their sloshy ride back to Brooklyn, and aeration systems to keep the fish alive. It soon emerged that Zhou had bought the fish without a valid dealer’s license. 

Zhou and his assistant were arrested and booked into a local Maine jail, and the elvers and Zhou’s van were seized. Evidence photos taken of Zhou’s phone show a barrage of texts to Maine eel fishermen and other dealers. “Are you still selling eel to me??” Zhou had texted Tim Lewis, another Maine eel buyer and elver fisherman, about an hour and a half before Zhou’s arrest. (In 2018, Lewis received a six-month sentence and $2,500 fine for trafficking nearly $500,000 worth of elvers.) “Cash?” reads another text, to which Lewis simply responds, “Yes.” Zhou’s phone also listed contacts named “Ruben Turtle Man,” “Mantis shrimp John,” “eel eel,” and “Jimmy eel man.”

After being charged under state law, Zhou was released. At the time, he saw his infraction, which was his first, as equivalent to a “parking ticket,” his lawyer later said. Over the next two years, as federal agents continued to watch, Zhou bought at least 105 pounds of illegally harvested elvers, or about 210,000 individual baby eels, and exported them to Hong Kong in multiple shipments, again from JFK. After being raised to maturity, processed, and sold as unagi, those eels would be valued at $50 million.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, teams of undercover agents across the Eastern seaboard—along with the USFWS, federal environmental crimes prosecutors, and state marine patrol enforcement officers—ran a coordinated crackdown. As of late 2018, the operation had caught 18 individuals collectively responsible for $5 million of illegally trafficked elvers, including Zhou. When asked about Zhou’s case, and in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the USFWS declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. Zhou got out of jail in May 2019 and didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, including a request made through his defense lawyer.

Only DNA knows

At a small restaurant table in Tokyo, Professor Tatsuki Yoshinaga of Kitasato University’s Ocean Research Institute sat against a floor-to-ceiling glass window and picked delicately at his lunch. It was the winter of 2018, and the noontime sun caught glints of silver in his black hair. He ordered the eel bowl: three thin, mahogany-lacquered barbequed fillets atop a square bed of rice, served at a cost of 1,900 yen or about $17. The dish was nearly twice as much as any other single item on the menu at this fast-service restaurant chain. 

Deftly wielding long black chopsticks, Yoshinaga dropped a dime-sized piece of eel meat onto a cheap paper napkin. He wrapped it like a tiny present and passed it across the table. I slipped it into my purse.

Yoshinaga often collects unagi samples from local grocery stores and restaurants. Sometimes he brings leftovers back to his lab, where they are enjoyed by students. March 2021

Karen Pinchin

Yoshinaga often collects unagi samples from local grocery stores and restaurants. Sometimes he brings leftovers back to his lab, where they are enjoyed by students.

A few minutes later, walking fast, Yoshinaga led the way into a high-ceilinged, brightly lit grocery store. He strode toward the seafood section, which took up one whole corner of the building, and gestured at three big open-topped coolers brimming with pink and grey fish, bulging bags of shrimp, and other frost-flecked sea creatures. During Japan’s midsummer Festival of the Ox, he said, where unagi is the main event, these coolers are always packed with sweet-and-savory barbequed eel. 

That day, there was only a single small display of about two dozen or so individual packages. On each plastic tray, two long eel filets were been cut into thirds and stuck lengthwise on wooden skewers. 

“This could be American eel, or European eel, or Japanese eel,” said Yoshinaga, picking up one package and passing it to me. It felt feather-light, so I was surprised by how expensive it was: 1,090 yen, about $10. I paid the cashier, and this eel, too, went into my handbag.

Next, Yoshinaga and I drove to his new office an hour outside Tokyo, where he and his team try to trace and quantify the worldwide black-market eel trade. There, in a new, white-walled laboratory, surrounded by testing equipment and glass cases packed with baby eels preserved in ethanol, two graduate students started dissecting our lunch scraps. A lab-coated female student unwrapped the grocery-store package. Meanwhile, her male colleague cut little squares from the eel on Yoshinaga’s wrinkled napkin. 

In 2000, Japan’s population of 127 million consumed 70 percent of the world’s processed eel. That works out to about 3 pounds per person that year or two weeks’ worth of nonstop lunchtime unagi bowls. 

“I don’t worry about lawsuits. But sometimes I’m a little bit worried about the Chinese mafia.”

Demand for eel has declined since then, but Japanese diners still eat more of the delicacy than eaters anywhere else in the world. But prices are steadily rising—in 2018, a pound of Japanese eels cost up to $70,000—and many middle-class Japanese consumers can no longer afford to eat it. A few years ago, when a century-old Tokyo eel restaurant raised the price of its signature dish from 2,100 yen (about $19) to 3,000 yen (about $27), the restaurant’s owner said customers “simply stopped coming.”

Most Japanese diners assume that the unagi they buy is Japanese eel, both because it’s the only species legally farmed in the country and is, due to pride in the local species, seen as tastier. But once an eel is cooked, barbecued, and packaged into unagi, only DNA tests—which are faster than ever before but still take hours of processing time—can conclusively determine whether a sample is Japanese, European, or American eel. The country also imports unagi from China, so consumers have few ways to know if what they’re eating was caught and farmed locally, or if it is poached or legal European or American eel.

Yoshinaga started DNA testing of eels a year after Japan instituted its own domestic ban. The global black market for eels soon transformed his research into something deeply political, controversial, and potentially dangerous. In Japan, the birthplace of eel aquaculture, criminal activity has long been a characteristic of the industry. “Without the yakuza [the Japanese mafia], they would never fill the eel ponds,” one source told Japanese investigative journalist Tomohiko Suzuki in 2015. During that year’s fishing season, a report found that only a third of the 15.3-ton glass eel harvest was properly documented. 

Sample bottles at Tatsuki Yoshinaga's Tokyo laboratory demonstrate eels at their earliest life stages. March 2021

Sample bottles at Tatsuki Yoshinaga’s Tokyo laboratory demonstrate eels at their earliest life stages.

Karen Pinchin

Yoshinaga’s lab runs hundreds of tawny unagi scraps through state-of-the-art genetic sequencing machines. In the process, they’ve amassed damning evidence of the extent of global eel crime. 

“I don’t worry about lawsuits,” he said with a nervous laugh. “But sometimes I’m a little bit worried about the Chinese mafia.”

New waters for an old market

A few years ago, as prices for glass eels spiked, a new rumor started to take hold: There were glass eels in the Caribbean, they were plentiful, and they were cheaper. The rumor drew the attention of eel fishermen and dealers in Europe and North America, and in April 2018, scientists, regulators, and law enforcement officials gathered in the Dominican Republic for a workshop.

“In the Caribbean, they’ve already started to experience the demand of Asian buyers showing up on their beaches looking for glass eels,” said Mari-Beth DeLucia, a Nature Conservancy conservation manager who attended the meeting. “[Caribbean countries] have a valuable resource that other folks are going to be looking for, and not necessarily legally.” 

A few months later, while trying to find a North American glass eel buyer who would speak about eel smuggling—particularly in emerging fishing regions like the Caribbean—one seafood dealer nearly hung up on me. 

“People get killed over things like this,” he said over the line. “You say you’re trying to understand this industry?” He paused. “I would suggest: Don’t.”

In November 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put the American eel on its red list of endangered species.

The complicated net binding fishermen, middlemen, and customers across continents has now, it seems, reached fisheries in North America’s southern range. “There’s huge money involved,” said the dealer, who asked for anonymity out of fear for his safety. Every year, he said, he hears about people connected to this high-stakes industry being murdered. 

In the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where glass eel fishing only recently started, violence has already broken out, with some deaths being blamed on disputes over territory. “What use do these Taiwanese have for these eels they buy at the price of gold?” wondered one young Haitian man, who had fallen into work as a glass eel middleman, in 2013. “Some families around here are about to hit it big.”

In November 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put the American eel on its red list of endangered species. It was a move that many in the industry—including some scientists and regulators—think went too far. “It’s vulnerable, and the species needs to be managed,” said British eel entrepreneur Peter Wood, “but it’s not more endangered than a panda.” 

More recently, the U.S. government has struck down two attempts to officially list the American eel as an endangered species.

More recently, the U.S. government has struck down two attempts to officially list the American eel as an endangered species. If the Americans don’t, the Canadian government is unlikely to add the fish to its own Species at Risk Act, a move that would effectively shut down its national glass eel fishery. In 2018, on the legal market, Maine glass eel fishermen made $21 million, while Canadian glass eel fishermen, primarily in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, made between $15 and $22 million, according to government statistics. 

Meanwhile, eel crime continues to boom. In 2018, Canadian authorities working with Interpol intercepted a shipping container holding 18 tons of eel meat, which they believed was poached European eel, arriving from Asia and destined for North American markets. Between October 2019 and April 2020, authorities arrested more than 100 suspected smugglers, seizing about 4,400 pounds of glass eels worth around $7.4 million. China’s COVID-19 lockdown made the crackdown, dubbed Operation Lake, more challenging, as the global pandemic affected all transactions, including illegal ones. Despite the magnitude of that seizure, it was a mere drop in the bucket: Europol suspects 220,000 pounds are smuggled out of Europe every year.

At the Dominican Republic meeting, some Caribbean officials said they weren’t even aware of eels in their waters. Another said he didn’t want to make their eels common knowledge because crime would inevitably follow. 

DeLucia said she understands why those countries are reluctant to join the fray. “Maine is investing an enormous amount of resources to control their fishery, and they haven’t been completely successful,” she said. “It took an enormous amount of money that these countries don’t have.”

“Any fish has a line”

Today, humans eat more unagi than at any other point in history. It’s a vicious cycle: As eel populations drop, their price goes up. That leads to more fishermen trying to catch more glass eels. That makes eels more difficult to protect, so the number of eels drops again. And the price of eel shoots higher.

Without DNA tests like the ones that Yoshinaga does in Japan, transparent supply chains like Rademaker’s, or clear labeling laws of the kind that are advocated by the Sustainable Eel Group, it’s impossible for consumers to know if they are eating legal or illegal eel. For every glass eel smuggler caught, some estimates say at least eight or nine make it to Asia with their suitcases of eels undetected. Once raised and processed into unagi, those black-market eels are ending up in North America. According to one Canadian official, at least half of all eel on that country’s retail market is likely European eel first smuggled into China and then illegally imported back into North America. 

Meanwhile, Yoshinaga continues to collect and test unagi. Months after our meeting, he emailed to confirm that, happily, his DNA analysis confirmed that the samples we took during our day together were Japanese eel. He releases test results, fields phone calls and interview requests, and explains this convoluted story to anyone who will listen. He doesn’t want to hurt eel farmers, but he also wants Japanese eel consumers to understand that by eating European or American eel, they are potentially wiping out species. “There are two types of people in the eel industry: good and bad,” said Yoshinaga, as we ate our bowls of unagi. “Sometimes bad people make very big money, but there are still very innocent farms. I don’t want to disturb their business.”

Tatsuki Yoshinaga weighs a grocery store-bought filet of unagi before it is tested. He later determined this filet was from a Japanese eel. March 2021

Tatsuki Yoshinaga weighs a grocery store-bought filet of unagi before it is tested. He later determined this filet was from a Japanese eel.

Karen Pinchin

In 2018, American Unagi was granted a renewable 200-pound annual glass eel aquaculture quota by the state of Maine, where glass eel fishing and buying licenses are strictly regulated. That means Rademaker’s fish are some of the very few American-caught baby eels that won’t spend their lives abroad before arriving on American sushi platters.

Despite a slump in prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rademaker has been impressed at how the takeout sushi industry has endured, and she remains confident that there’s a viable market for her eels. That is something she has strongly believed since 2018, back when she first got a phone call from a number she didn’t recognize. 

“It was just this super-excited voice like, ‘Hey, you have eels, and you’re growing them! That’s so cool, and we want to get some,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” That guy, it turned out, was Mike Wiley, a chef-owner of Portland, Maine’s acclaimed Eventide oyster bar. “Once you’re into that network,” said Rademaker, “all the chefs talk.”

“A lot of the time, people think fisheries will last forever on their own, and that nature will take care of itself. But … we play a significant role in balancing the world out. Most of the time our finger is on the scale.”

To scale her business up, Rademaker plans to start building a new facility in Waldoboro this year. She is waiting for the pandemic to ebb so she can fly a Dutch engineering team to Maine. 

In addition to selling live eels to high-end chefs in nearby Portland and Boston, American Unagi recently started selling live, smoked, and frozen eel online, with prices starting at $12 a pound for a single live eel. And while poachers and opportunistic fishermen are always going to be “poking holes and trying to find a way around,” said Rademaker, she’s hopeful Americans will be eating American eel for a long time to come—although she says everyone in the supply chain, including government, fishermen, restaurants, and even law enforcement will have to pull in the same direction in order to maintain the species. 

“A lot of the time, people think fisheries will last forever on their own, and that nature will take care of itself. But … we play a significant role in balancing the world out. Most of the time our finger is on the scale,” she said. While her own experiences have shown her the depths of the eel’s resilience, she will never take that resilience for granted.  

“It’s incredible what you can put these fish through,” she said, “but any fish has a line.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the 2018 price of eels, $2,400 per pound, was worth more than gold.

Karen Pinchin writes about food systems, business, and culture. She is currently working on her first book. Contact her on Twitter: @karenpinchin.