A fascinating look inside the seedy black market for glass eels

Eels are having a sort-of renaissance right now (not to be confused with the time when eels were used as a currency in England, which was more medieval than renaissance). Now The Counter has a grossly fascinating article about American Unagi, a Maine-based company that's struggling to establish an above-the-board approach to the typically-crime-laden international eel market.

It's as weird and awesome as it sounds (if you, like me, are captivated by seemingly-incongruous true crime stories). Here's a, erm, taste:

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. 


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.

I've never thought that hard about eels, about the fish trade in general, or the regulatory challenges that such a system could face. But damn, it's some wild stuff!

Slimy, smuggled, and worth top dollar: Can one Maine entrepreneur break into the crime-ridden global market for eel? [Karen Pinchin / The Counter]

Image: Sara Goldsmith / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)