the eel deal
Even though few Tasmanians give eels much of a second thought, the native species has the potential to become the state’s next big aquaculture export. KAROLIN MacGREGOR reports
AFTER more than five decades in the eel industry, the Finlayson family are passionate about what they do. While most Tasmanians probably know little about the state’s native eel species, the Finlaysons believe eel has the potential to be the state’s next major aquaculture industry.
The family that runs Tasmanian Eel Exporters have recently built a $1.7 million growing facility at Bagdad to help increase production.
To help build the facility, the family received a $400,000 grant from the Tasmanian Jobs and Investment Fund.
The business was started in 1964 by Wayne Finlayson and now sons Brad and Shaun are involved.
Wild caught eels, found in dams and lakes across the state, remain the basis of the business.
However, a state-of-the-art growing facility means they can significantly boost production to help supply valuable export markets in South Korea, Japan and China.
Brad Finlayson spends much of his time fishing for eels in dams and lakes.
He said while many locals had probably not tasted eel, in many Asian countries they were an important part of the diet.
Wayne Finlayson said because of the overseas demand for eel, he predicted if the industry was developed it could potentially be worth up to $1 billion a year.
“The market around the globe is huge and they will basically take as much as we can produce,” he said.
“I’m going to put my neck out here . . . I’d say if the industry here was expanded it could easily be as big as the salmon industry.”
The eels have a unique life cycle and can live for more than 100 years.
They live in the state’s rivers, dams lakes and estuaries for most of their life.
When it is time to spawn they make the long journey to the Coral Sea, normally when they are between 18 and 30 years old.
The baby eels, called glass eels, then drift back down to Tasmania on currents and gradually find their way back to the state’s freshwater systems.
Each year the Inland Fisheries Department also collects the small eels, called elvers, around the state.
Some of these are sold to the Finlaysons who use them to restock farm dams as well as lakes as needed.
The department also sells a number of elvers each year to export countries where they are then grown out.
The largest eel the Finlaysons have caught was 14.4kg.
Eel fishing is controlled around the state by 10 licences.
The Finlaysons own seven licences and lease another one.
There are also large areas that are not fished to ensure the wild population remains sustainable.
The family opened their new facility last October and since then have been perfecting their growing systems.
Brad said being able to control the water temperature and access to food increased the eel growth rates significantly.
He said they were able to achieve weight gains in a period of eight weeks that would take about five years in the wild, where the eels are often in colder water and feed on things like worms and insects.
The new growing facility has 20 tanks, which each hold 8000 litres of water.
After being caught, the eels are graded according to size.
Water temperature in the tanks is kept constant about 23C, which is ideal for optimum growth.
The eels are then regularly fed on a specially designed diet.
Each tank contains between 600 to 1200 eels.
Maintaining water quality is vital, so the system includes a six-stage filter that recycles water through tanks.
The system moves 380,000 litres of water through 2½ times every hour.
Waste is taken off site and used as fertiliser, but Brad said they would soon build a wetland on a site nearby that would mean the system was a closed loop.
Once the eels have reached the required weight for sale, they are put into smaller tanks to purge.
After they are cleaned, the eels are then put to sleep using an aquatic anaesthetic and shipped live to the export markets via airfreight.
Wayne said eel not only tasted great, but with the highest protein level of any fish and high levels of omega three oils, it was also healthy.
Until now the Finlaysons have been producing about 50 tonnes of eels annually.
However, the growing facility will enable them to more than double production.
Brad said another advantage was they would also be able to supply fish more consistently throughout the year.
“The thing is there’s no point opening up
The market around the globe is huge and they will basically take as much as we can produce
new markets or going to restaurants if we can’t supply the product consistently, but now we’ll be able to do that,” he said.
While they have so far concentrated on the export market, Brad said there was also potential to value add their products and sell more into the domestic market.
They are experimenting with products such as smoked eel, pickled eel and eel pate.
To help educate locals about eels, the family have been taking their products to events and serving freshly cooked eel.
They will also be attending the trout weekend on May 20-21 at Liaweenee.