Development of techniques for the cultivation of monkeyface pricklebacks as a sustainable alternative to unagi

Project Number
Project Date Range
Funding Agency
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Focus Area(s)
Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture

Unagi, or freshwater eel (Anguilla japonica and other Anguilla species), is extremely popular in sushi restaurants and Asian cuisine and has an annual market value of well over $1 Billion. However, wild populations of the eels have declined dramatically due to wild harvest, climate change, and other anthropogenic stressors: European, Japanese and American eels are all listed as endangered. Captive breeding has not been particularly successful, and farming practices place significant pressure on other wild fish populations that are harvested for feed. 

In this project, researchers will test the potential for cultivation of an alternative species as a sustainable source of unagi. Monkeyface pricklebacks or monkeyface “eels” (Cebidichthys violaceous) are eel-like fishes that live in rocky intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats from Oregon to northern Baja California. The fish are primarily herbivorous, and can live in small spaces, and grow quite large, all qualities that make them attractive as a potential aquaculture species. Furthermore the flesh is delicate, richly flavored, and can be prepared many ways.

In this project, the researchers plan to study reproduction in captivity and work on techniques to complete the life cycle, testing larval/juvenile growth at different temperatures and diets. They will also study growth on different mixed and single species seaweed diets at a variety of temperatures and will develop seaweed feed pellets using our feed mill to see if that will enhance growth. 

The researchers will collaborate with industry partners, TwoXSea and Monterey Bay Seaweeds, to develop techniques to farm monkeyface pricklebacks at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Center for Aquaculture, develop techniques to process the product into a tasty alternative to unagi, and will work with partners to develop a market to eventually sell the product to consumers.

Principal Investigators
Scott Hamilton
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories / San Jose State University
Co-principal Investigators
Michael Graham
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories / San Jose State University
profile photo of Luke Gardner Luke Gardner
University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography