By John Waldman, Merry Camhi
With the exception of sushi aficionados devouring unagi in rolls of avocado, rice, and a dab of wasabi, American eels do not get a lot of love today. Once a dietary mainstay of native peoples and early colonists, these nutritious animals have been devastated over the centuries by growing fishing pressure and the construction of dams along rivers where they once swam in abundance.
Although a petition to add the American eel to the U.S. endangered species list was denied in 2007, a second petition will be considered in 2015. In the meantime, fishery managers can take critical steps to secure a better future for what many consider the most mysterious fish in the sea.
American eels lead a singular existence of sweeping geographies. Spawned deep in the Sargasso Sea—a two million-square mile becalmed region of the Atlantic between the Azores and West Indies—their larvae hitch a hemispheric ride for half a year on the Gulf Stream as they transform into ‘glass eels.’
Each spring, millions of these transparent, four-inch-long baby eels exit the Atlantic to enter estuaries and rivers from Greenland to northern South America. Once in fresh water they darken, drive upstream, and spend the next decade or two maturing, until the spawning imperative stirs them to migrate thousands of miles back to the Sargasso, where they reproduce just once and die.
For millions of years this unique life cycle was wildly successful. In the 1800’s, eels that had migrated up the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario aggregated at the foot of Niagara Falls. Nineteenth-century naturalists commented that “hundreds of wagonloads . . . would hardly be considered excessive by those who have visited the spot.” More....