Scientists Worry About Future Of Often-Overlooked Bay Species: The American Eel (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Scientists Worry About Future of Often-Overlooked Bay Species: The American Eel

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
On today's show, we've heard about some of the species who call the Chesapeake Bay home. Most notably oysters and crabs. And the importance of keeping their numbers up. But scientists are also concerned about the future of a creature that's a little more snake like. This week, the Atlantic State's Marine Fisheries Commission took a step toward tightening restrictions on the East Coasts, American Eel Fisheries.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:25
Clare Fieseler, traveled from the Eastern shore of Maryland to Annapolis and eventually to a hotel ballroom in Alexandria, Va., to uncover the story of this unusual and some say imperiled species.

MS. CLARE FIESELER

00:00:37
The sun is barely over the horizon when I see the twilight, a 103-year-old Potomac River Dory waiting at the dock. I'm in Worton, Md., being welcomed aboard this 44-foot long vessel.

MR. ANDREW MCCOWAN

00:00:50
My name is Andrew McCowan. We're in a little spot called Still Pond Creek.

FIESELER

00:00:56
Great idea.

MCCOWAN

00:00:56
So, and we're about to go through a little bottleneck here and get out into the Bay Proper.

FIESELER

00:01:01
Not many people here in Kent County, on Maryland's eastern shore, are YouTube celebrities. But Andrew McCowan is. He's producing a web series called, "Cool Outdoor Stuff." And that was my first introduction to Andrew, on the internet, watching him talk to the camera, ankle deep in a bucket full of eels.

MCCOWAN

00:01:22
If you happen to have some eels laying around and you've had a long day at work, it's a great thing to come home to a nice, relaxing eel foot massage. Oh, oh, that's fabulous.

FIESELER

00:01:34
Today he's showing me one of the traditional eel pots he uses in these videos and in his outdoor education programs to catch eels. I wanted to see this bizarre fish up close.

MCCOWAN

00:01:45
Big, I mean, this guy might be two-feet long.

FIESELER

00:01:49
Oh my, God. These things are so slippery. Look at their eyes.

MCCOWAN

00:01:54
Yeah. They got little teeny eyes.

FIESELER

00:01:56
These yellow eels, in Andrew's pot, do not look anything like the pencil size eels you can find in, say, Maine. Eels that are sold for $800 a pound. Nor do they look like the salt loving eels you might find in a place like the Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda. But believe it or not, these are all the same species. And that is the trouble with American eels, they change forms and home locations a lot. When it comes to fish in the Chesapeake Bay, eels have the most complex life history.

MR. STEVE MINKKINEN

00:02:27
Eels are really fascinating fish because they -- I like to say they do everything backwards.

FIESELER

00:02:32
Steve Minkkinen is the project leader of the Maryland Fisheries Resource Office with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We're sitting in his Annapolis office. I ask him to give me a bit of a crash course in eels and why they're such a particularly tricky species for states to manage.

MINKKINEN

00:02:48
In the ocean they're -- they look like a willow leaf but they're transparent, we call them leptocephalus. They reach the coast -- now, they've transformed into a shape of an eel but they don't have any pigment at all. So they're two inches long, totally clear.

FIESELER

00:03:02
So they've floated into the Chesapeake from the sea, totally on a whim. And when they change to this clear wormlike form, they start honing in on freshwater.

MINKKINEN

00:03:12
And as they mature, they can live in freshwater systems for up to 20 years.

FIESELER

00:03:17
Once the eels reach maturity, they become this silvery color and get ready to head out on a long journey south towards Bermuda.

MINKKINEN

00:03:25
They're just transforming into ocean migrants is what they're doing. 'Cause they're going to stop eating, they're going to migrate downstream, they're gonna go to Sargasso, they're gonna spawn one time and then they're gonna die.

FIESELER

00:03:35
But really, these are the basics. Scientists, they still don't know the mortality rates of eels or how abundant there are at these different stages. All of the information you might need to sustainably manage the species, and that -- that made eels a hot button issue at this week's meeting, at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in Alexandria, Va.

MINKKINEN

00:03:57
Today is a management board meeting.

FIESELER

00:03:59
And I'm heading over there. What can I expect?

MINKKINEN

00:04:02
They're gonna be considering adoption of Addendum IV.

FIESELER

00:04:05
Addendum IV is basically scientific shorthand for a plan. A plan to protect American eels at all life stages.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN

00:04:12
...lifecycle surveys along the coast. And a lifecycle survey would include a...

FIESELER

00:04:17
After Monday's deliberation, in an echoing hotel ballroom, the commission approved Addendum IV. The plan now enters a round of public comment and future fine tuning. But some observers, including Steve Minkkinen, fear that these restrictions are still not enough. Minkkinen and his team are experimenting with a more ecosystem based approach. They're heading, later this month, to Conewingo Dam in Maryland. Their plan, is to collect tiny eels, put them on trucks and transport them to the fresh headwaters of the Susquehanna above its dams.

FIESELER

00:04:50
Now, this conservation measure may seem a little bizarre but then again, so is the American eel. Back on the Eastern Shore, Andrew McCowan and I release the eels back into the water. He thinks Steve Minkkinen's project of hauling eels, up river, by truck actually makes sense.

MCCOWAN

00:05:09
Fish management, as we address one species at a time, we'd be remiss if we didn't consider the fact that it's all connected and that all of these guys are an important part of the food chain.

FIESELER

00:05:22
I'm Clare Fieseler.

SHEIR

00:05:28
Maryland will be holding public hearings this summer to get feedback on that addendum Clare mentioned. We have more information about it on metroconnection.org. And while you're on our website, you can check out that video we heard a bit of, that one featuring outdoor educator, Andrew McCowan, getting an eel foot massage. Yeah, that's on metroconnection.org too.

SHEIR

00:05:56
In a minute, remembering the days when roller coasters and arcade games lined the shores of one Chesapeake Bay town.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN

00:06:03
If you were a city kid, collecting cans or whatever, your lunch money you saved up, you came everywhere to pocket full of nickels, you had one heck of a time all day.

SHEIR

00:06:14
That and more is coming your way as our look at the Chesapeake continues, here on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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