I am proud of my own product!

Chris Huisman was not born into fish farming. Now this young man has developed a passion for eel, he successfully runs an eel farm, and wants to invest and innovate for the good future of this sustainable way of farming.

Chris Huisman of eel farm De Palingfabriek has a good story to tell.

In his childhood in in the northern Dutch province of Friesland Chris learned to catch and smoke wild eels, in compliance with local tradition. Later, he studied engineering, enjoying some smoked eel, from time to time, as any Friesian would do.

The foundation of his passion for eel dates to 2017, when he stared working at the eel farm founded by former owner Johan Troelstra. His engineering background enabled him to easily step into handling the automatization, alarms and safety requirements that come with farming eels in RAS systems. “I liked the system and the processes, and easily learned about taking care of the welfare of the fish, and thereby developed a passion for eels”, Chris tells.

The eel farm was founded in 1992 and expanded in 2003. In 2020, Chris got the chance to take over the farm and De Palingfabriek (‘The Eel Factory’) was born. He was happy to be able to seize this opportunity. He hereby became co-owner and solely responsible manager of the eel farm. Chris explains that he got good back-up from other, more experienced eel farmers in situations where he needed advice. But all in all, farming of eel at De Palingfabriek is managed by two solely persons: Chris and an employee.

I am proud of my own product!

The bigger part of the De Palingfabriek eels is sold by wholesale to smokeries and fish traders, but sales to private persons has become more and more popular. In the area, it is quite common to have on-farm sales of locally produced farm products like fruit, vegetables, honey, eggs, or meat. So, in 2022, Chris and his wife Jetske decided to establish a second company, Proef & Beleef De Palingfabriek (‘Taste & Experience the Eel Factory’) for direct sales of eel products.

“Our products are smoked daily in a traditional way in our own smoking cabinet. We have various products that can be picked up fresh: smoked eel, filleted eel and our fresh sandwiches. We also have slaughtered eel for the do-it-yourself smoker”, Chris informs. Chris’s wife Jetske holds a diploma as a restaurant specialist, so they not only opened a farm shop but also a farm restaurant. In the North of the Netherlands, it is not that common to have a restaurant in the farmland. “But luckily, both the shop and the restaurant are very well attended. We have a phantastic feedback from people who enjoyed a cup of coffee with cake, lunch or a drink with a snack on our terrace or inside our place. I am proud of my own product!” Chris tells.

Both shop and restaurant are run by Jetske who also oversees most of the administrative tasks that come with the two companies.

I have a good story to tell

Chris enjoys being an eel farmer: “I have a good story to tell about farming of eel. In European eel farming, we really are aware of taking care of the animals we grow. Here in Europe, we are a small farming business, not a mass market with billions of kg production.”

According to CITES, European eels are considered an endangered species in the wild and therefore trade of this species must be controlled. “It is very important for our business that the eel that come from our farm are fully traceable”, says Chris. The glass eel purchased by De Palingfabriek to start up a new production batch are 100 % certified to be in accordance with the SEG standard. The SEG standard sets the criteria for responsible and best practice fishing, aquaculture, restocking, consumption, and trade of European eel.

“As an eel farmer, I am proud to know that I contribute to restoring nature. When our glass eels have grown into fingerlings of 3 to 10 grams each, some 30 % of our glass are released in the inland waters of the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. The release of glass eels is important to maintain the eel stock in the wild”, Chris says.

After 1,5 to 3 years on the farm, the remaining eel are ready for consumption, depending on the size required by consumers. Compared to traditionally farmed animals, eel easily convert feed into growth. Eel have an average feed conversion ratio (FCR) of only 1.4 – 1.5, and according to Chris it can be as low as 1.1, for instance for smaller eel.

Chris continues: “De Palingfabriek is a RAS farm. RAS farming is complex, and you need to master it. For me, this is a sustainable way of farming, and I am convinced that RAS farming will continue to grow in the future. We have a minimum impact on the surroundings. As we farm in closed systems where production water is recirculated, there is no nitrogen pollution. Reusing the water in the tanks leads to a low consumption of fresh water. Furthermore, we reuse the heat that would otherwise go out with the water, which again saves energy.”

“My farm is run in a sustainable way and meets the requirements of certification schemes. Also, I definitely support the eel preservation initiatives taken by organisations such as the Duch Fish Farmers Association and DUPAN.”

We want to invest and innovate

Chris is concerned about the future of eel farming. But he is positive: “A year ago I was more negative: politics had very much focus on fishery of both glass eels and big eels. Now the focus is shifting from catching glass eels to fishing of adult eel and removal of dams to help eel to migrate back to their spawning grounds out in the Sargasso Sea. This will help the status of the eel. The eel market is stable now. In top, artificial reproduction of European eel in scalable volumes may be possible in the future, and mastering the fully closed life cycle of eel might lead to an increase of the market.”

Chris Huijsman has an energetic approach and sends this message to the eel industry and to fish farming in general: “The background story of eel farming is good: why do we farm and how do we farm. We are a new generation of eel farmers: we want to go, at least the coming 25 years, and we want to invest and innovate!”