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

Tasmanian Country - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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