Monday, January 24, 2011

Eels are people too

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, fish, eels

This large freshwater eel from Singapore is typical of Asian eels in its mottled color, but is otherwise similar to eels found worldwide (Image from The Lazy Lizard's Tales). Most freshwater eels are dark brown or black. A strange fact: The food provided by Indians to the English immigrants, commemorated in Thanksgiving celebrations, was largely an eel feast, with venison a minor component.

Freshwater Eels are catadromous, meaning they move downstream and out into the ocean to breed; "cata" means "down". This is in contrast to salmon and shad, which are anadromous, moving from the ocean upstream to breed; "ana" means "up". Just where the eels breed is still not known in any detail, and eels remain very mysterious, as described in Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek. Eels from around the Atlantic are known to breed somewhere in the Sargasso Sea, and Asian eels have very recently been caught, dying, a few days after breeding, but despite a century's diligent effort, they have never been observed breeding.

Author James Prosek traveled the world, initially searching for the facts of eel biology and ecology. After several years he found he was learning much more of eel folklore and mythology. While in most places eels are a food animal, the Lasialap people of Pohnpei (formerly Ponape) Island in Micronesia believe they are descended from eels, and look upon the eating of eels with horror. Although the Maori of New Zealand eat eels, their folklore is filled with cautionary tales of those who would abuse them, and with stories of the taniwha (pronounced "tanifa"), or guardian eels.

Like every other ocean resource, the eel fishery is collapsing worldwide. This has led to an immense trade in glass eels, the first post-larval stage when they are 4-5 cm in length, which are used to stock rivers and lakes for "fattening up". Current prices for glass eels are a few hundred dollars per pound. Imagine what a five-ton shipment of glass eels from Maine is worth!

One of the author's long-term friends has been Ray Turner, who maintains an eel weir near Peas Eddy in New York State. Each year he endeavors to capture something like a thousand eels from the many thousands who migrate downstream into the Delaware River each year. When the weather doesn't cooperate, he'll capture only a fraction of that. Prosek returned year after year to Peas Eddy, and was able to gradually participate in most aspects of the commercial eel business of which Turner is a part.

Though freshwater eel numbers from all nineteen species are crashing nearly everywhere, there is as yet no designation of them as either endangered or threatened, particularly in the U.S. Activists that Prosek got to know believe this is political. Eels are found throughout North American watersheds, and an Endangered designation would disrupt activities along all the continent's rivers. But it is precisely those activities, damming for hydropower and "recreation", and commerce with its effluents, that prevent eels from completing their life cycles. At one time the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River were the premier eel growing areas; no more. There is too much that is in their way now. The Delaware is the main river of the Eastern American seaboard that is not dammed every few miles, and is the last major eel growing region. The nearby Susquehanna River is nearly eel-free now. If eels were more "warm and cuddly"—they happen to be cold and slimy—they would probably get more respect. There are few who stand up for them.

There is an interesting parallel between the history of the Atlantic eel species and that of the green sea turtles. Both migrate thousands of miles to breed. Both are about 200 million years old. Both apparently began breeding, the turtles on the Azores, the eels in mid-water, when the Atlantic Ocean first opened. As the ocean widened over the millennia, both gradually adapted and honed their navigation skills, so as to find their breeding grounds as these were taken farther and farther from the coasts of America and Africa and Europe by continental motions. Prosek tells the story of the eels' evolution, and I happened to know already of that of the turtles.

The book is a real eye-opener. The eels' story is a lot like our story. They live up to 100 years, just as people do. They are easily tamed, and have personalities. They have become a worldwide success over those millions of years, but this upstart primate species is taking over the rivers, to the point that eels are getting squeezed out. Only in places where they are revered are they in any sense still thriving. The book, first conceived as a recipe book, became a spiritual journey for its author. This mysterious fish, which can travel overland if needed to reach its goal, deserves to be better known.

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