Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Amazing Freshwater Eel

Globally, there are 16 species of freshwater eel, and they spawn in each of the world’s oceans. The freshwater eel is what we call a catadromous fish, a fish that spends its life in rivers and streams, eventually returning to the sea to spawn and die. This lifecycle is the opposite of anadromous fish, like the familiar river herring which travels up rivers to reproduce and return to the ocean. It is believed that the American eel, Rhode Island’s resident species, spawns in the Sargasso Sea, although no one has ever witnessed this event. In fact, very little is known about this mysterious animal. A PBS Nature documentary was aired last week and provides a fascinating look at these fish.

Populations of eel around the world are at an all-time low, due to the prevalence of dams on our rivers, mortality in hydro turbines, overfishing, and many other environmental challenges. Glass eels and elvers, the tiny young eels that return to rivers in the spring, are currently harvested in Maine and South Carolina. The huge price paid for these eels has made poaching a problem, and has made those who can legally fish for them rich. The elvers, no bigger than your little finger, are sold to fish farms in China and Japan where they are raised to adulthood and sold. Japan alone consumes 130,000 tons of eel each year. This photo, taken by Tim Watts, shows a congregation of elvers at the first dam on the Weweantic River in Massachusetts.

American eel have been minimally managed as a fishery in the United States. An adult female can lay up to 4 million eggs which develop through several life stages and drift slowly back toward coastal rivers. There are few restrictions on commercial harvest of adult eels other than a six inch size restriction, and the recreational limit is 50 eels per day per person with a six inch size limit. A limited elver fishery is still open.

There are many proposed recommendations to help the American eel, including seasonal closures, prohibiting traps and eel pots by recreational fishermen, closing the elver fishery and habitat protections such as dam removal.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has developed an Interstate Fishery Management Plan and has written several addenda to this plan. They are currently holding hearings in Atlantic coast states to gather public comment on Draft Addendum III. The plan proposes increased monitoring by the states and recommendations to improve American eel habitat, as well as recommendations to reduce mortality. Comments are due May 2nd. To comment, click on American Eel under Managed Species on their website.

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