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Updated: January 10, 2024

Waldoboro eel grower American Unagi receives $1.5M investment

American Unagi Inc., a Waldoboro startup that’s the only U.S. producer and processor of American eel, has received a $1.5 million investment from RuralWorks Partners LLC, an impact investment firm with offices in Vermont and Minnesota.

RuralWorks’ investment aims to support the Maine company’s growth. Operating in partnership with the local Passamaquoddy Tribe, American Unagi said it’s positioned to supply escalating demand for eel among food consumers, notably within a fast-growing market for Japanese cuisine.

American Unagi grows and sells live and value-add eel products to restaurants, other consumers and distributors throughout the U.S. “Unagi” is the Japanese word for freshwater eel.

person in tweed blazer smiling
Sara Rademaker, president of American Unagi

"Our mission is to offer consumers a responsible and traceable alternative to uncertain imported eel products, while championing community growth and responsible natural resource management,” Sara Rademaker, founder of American Unagi. “Our collaboration with RuralWorks is an important piece in achieving these goals."

Louisa Schibli, RuralWorks’ chief engagement officer, said, "This investment aligns perfectly with our mission to help build local agriculture and food supply chains, create economic resilience within rural communities, and promote environmentally responsible solutions."

She told Mainebiz, "At RuralWorks, we have extensive networks nationally and this deal came from my connections in Maine that I have built over the past years via the Northern New England Women’s Investor Network, many of whom are also a part of Maine Angels.”

The network is a coalition of women in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont interested in angel and impact investing.

Feeding a growing appetite

Rademaker, a 2022 Maine 40 Under 40 honoree, started her business in 2014, raising a handful of baby eels to adult size in her basement. She expanded to a pilot facility a year later. 

In 2022, she completed construction of a $10 million, 27,000-square-foot facility at the Waldoboro Business Park.

American Unagi’s recirculating aquaculture systems facility is the first in the U.S. to grow Maine eels to market size. The company sources baby eels, also called elvers or glass eels, from local harvesters. 

Maine is at the heart of the East Coast elver fishery and one of only two states, along with South Carolina, that are allowed to harvest the baby eels. In recent years, elver harvesters have earned anywhere from $900 to $2,600 per pound, thanks to demand in Asia.

Rademaker’s goal was to offer a Maine-based alternative to shipping baby eels to Asia for them to grow into maturity and then be resold back to U.S. restaurants. 

In the U.S., the market for eels is estimated at 5,000 metric tons, driven by consumers’ increasing demand for sustainable, traceable seafood, according to the release.

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