Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Issue with Eels

By RJ Turcotte, Save The Bay intern


The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is an integral part of the aquatic ecosystem here in Rhode Island. Eels are catadromous fish, meaning they migrate from freshwater into the sea to spawn. They live in rivers and lakes and then travel south across the Atlantic ocean to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce. After laying up to 4 million eggs, the female eel dies. The eggs hatch, and the larva drift northward in the Gulf Stream to reach the rivers and lakes that will become their freshwater homes.

American eel in a touch tankLong, slender, and covered in what seems like an impossible amount of slime (a special mucus designed to make them difficult to catch and swallow, as well as to protect them from disease), they are often mistaken for sea snakes. However, eels are easily distinguished from snakes by their fins. These fish are nocturnal, feeding on whatever they can find, such as detritus, smaller fish, and invertebrates. This spring, watch for "elvers", (also known as young eels), as they swim upriver and finish up their extraordinary journey from the Sargasso Sea.

For humans, eels serve as an important resource. Considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, here in Rhode Island, they are the most popular live bait used by striped bass fisherman. Known as "striper candy," eels are eagerly inhaled by any striper in the immediate area. During the summer months, a live eel cast into the surf on a moonless night is your best shot at the fish of a lifetime.

"Unfortunately, all is not well in the world of eels."
Juvenile eels (called glass eels because they are nearly transparent) are harvested commercially, and due to their complex life cycle, regulation of the fishery has been very difficult. Although in 2007 and 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department found American Eels not be an endangered species, eel populations are down from historic levels due to various human impacts.

Here in Rhode Island, two of the biggest issues facing eels are their use in recreational fishing and the damming of historic eel rivers and streams. Since glass eels are harvested for later use as bait (as adults), lower numbers translate to higher prices at the tackle shop. Last year, fishermen could expect to pay almost $3 per eel; we typically buy six to 12 eels at a time, so using them is becoming a significant investment. If U.S. Fish & Wildlife deems it necessary to place eels on the endangered species list, they will no longer be available as bait at any price.

Damming of rivers also can have a detrimental effect on the long-term survival of American eels. Dams restrict access for eels to upstream freshwater habitats where the creatures mature. Horseshoe Falls, an historic dam located along the Pawcatuck River in Shannock Village, was recently restored with a fish ladder and a unique eel passageway that allows migrating eels to get back upstream.

"Protecting the American eel population is essential for the long-term survival of this species."
Fishermen can use a whole host of alternatives to fishing for stripers with eels. Tackle shop walls are adorned with lures designed especially to mimic eels, and most of them have proven to be effective at catching fish. Lead and steel jig heads dressed with slender rubber tails or long pork rinds can be dynamite in the surf. And the more ambitious among us have taken to finding pieces of old furniture (and taking the legs), as well as household things like broom handles, and fashioning our own eel imitations, with impressive results.

Lastly, if you prefer to trap your own eels, be sure to follow regulations. The R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s 2016 rules state that a recreational fisherman may only keep 25 eels, and that all of them must be 9 or more inches in length. For more information on the current federal status of eels and how you can help protect the population, head to http://www.fws.gov/northeast/americaneel/.