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

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The American Eel is becoming more rare in the Chesapeake Bay.
The American Eel is becoming more rare in the Chesapeake Bay.

There are few fish as mysterious as the American Eel. It looks like a snake but behaves more like a salmon. Even scientists lack basic knowledge about its complexity, hindering the management of eel harvest. Seemingly abundant in the Chesapeake Bay, tragic declines is neighboring states are having ripple effects that hit home.

This species is gaining newfound cultural, scientific, and political attention.

For starters, there is a growing cultural fascination with eels, both among foodies and Internet audiences. Take Kent-county native Andrew McCowan, for example.

When not running the Echo Hill Outdoor School in Chestertown, Maryland, he is producing a web series for the Chestertown Spy called "Cool Outdoor Stuff." Both quirky and educational, McCowan’s short episode, “For the Love of Eels” summarizes the species’ compelling natural history that is often overlooked. He grins into the camera, ankle deep in a bucket full of eels, demonstrating that any aversion to this species is unwarranted.

But the two-foot long, yellow eels in McCowan’s catch-and-release eel pots bear little resemblance to the pencil-size, clear eels getting national headlines.

In Maine, the tiny eels are currently fetching $800 a pound. This is the swamp-loving, “glass eel” morph within the eel’s life history. Also harvested, but for much less return, are big-eyed silver eels This morph is characterized by ocean migration and breeding in the Sargasso Sea.

It is hard to believe that these diverse creatures and colors are all one species. Believe it. The American Eel changes form, home location, and behavior at least five times during its life cycle. When it comes fish in the Chesapeake Bay, the American Eel is by far the most complex.

Scientists know the basics but that is not sufficient. We still don’t know the mortality rates or abundances of eels at these different stages. Data of his nature is vital for sustainable fisheries management by Atlantic states. With an insatiable demand for this fish from consumers in Europe and Asia, the lack of data is troublesome.

Many say population size is the biggest problem for fisheries managers. Essentially, the biological boundaries of our U.S. eel population does not mesh well with our political boundaries.

“The fact that it is one population,” says Steve Minkkinen, the project leader of the Maryland Fisheries Resource Office with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “causes tensions. You could have a really intense fishery in one [state]. And basically it’s impacting the overall population even though you have very low harvest in other [state].”

That creeping impact has been predominantly negative, leading to declines throughout New England and elsewhere over the past two decades.

Eels were a hot button issue at this week’s meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in Alexandria, Virginia. The AMFC’s American Eel Management Board approved Draft Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for public comment.

According to Tina Berger, ASMFC Director of Communications, “Draft Addendum IV proposes a suite of options to address the commercial glass, yellow, and silver eel fisheries along the Atlantic coast.” It also includes a mandate for new, region-specific science that can shed new light on the eels cradle-to-grave journey.

In short, Addendum IV is the first comprehensive plan to protect American Eels at all life stages. If adopted, all U.S. states along the east cost will have to comply. Not just a few. The Addendum now enters public comment and future fine-tuning. But some experts, including Steve Minkkinen, argues that these restrictions are still not enough.

“Fisheries people typical do the (things) that manage harvest,” says Minkkinen. “Maybe we need to be doing other things like getting eels upstream, past hydroelectric dams.”

His team has been experimenting with a more ecosystem-based approach to eel conservation. They are heading to Conewingo Dam in Maryland later this month, as then have for the past ten years. Their objective is to collect tiny eels, put them on trucks, and transport them to the fresh headwaters of the Susquehanna above its four main dams.

This extreme action ensure their ecological role within the system is maintained. For example, 25 percent perfect of fish biomass of the Susquehanna headwaters used to be locked up in eel weight. Eels might also be importance for transporting freshwater mussel larvae on their gills, giving them a vital lift from the bay to upland creeks.

While these broader ecosystem services are left off the table by Addendum IV, they are not overlooked by Minkkinen and his team. And the recent attention towards eels, in general, might soon persuade more states toward similar ecosystem-based approaches.

Admittedly, this conservation strategy – driving eels upriver in trucks – may seem a little bizarre. Then again, so is the American Eel.

Music: "Fresh Feeling" by Eels from Souljacker


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