Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Preserve the source

There is an often overlooked fish out there that is in need of attention. I have limited experience with this fish but have known at least a bit about its strange migrations for a long time. I never caught one but I have eaten them. The most I really knew was that this fish is considered by many to be the hands down best live striper bait if you want to catch big ones consistently. I also knew that it was very popular in sushi restaurants around the globe (especially of course in Japan) because its flesh is rich and savory. Other than that, I couldn't tell you much more than to give you a basic description; elongated and snake-like. That was until a dialog began between James Prosek and myself about eels.

Within a few days James began to lay out for me the life of this fascinating fish, to the extent that it is known, as well as the perils it faces. I received a manuscript of his upcoming book about eels, a link to Doug Watt's web site and a NY Times article talking about the precipitous decline of eel populations world wide due to hydropower dams, habitat degradation, pollution, and overfishing (no surprises). As I turned over the first few stones the picture became clear. I needed to join in helping to tell the story of the eel—and soon!—a fish that is as important to our local and regional waterways as our revered gamefish (trout, steelhead, etc.), hoping others would contribute to the discussion, and mobilize as a force to save the eel before its too late.

So for the remainder of this year, culminating with the release of James's book in September (and corresponding article in National Geographic) you will see occasional but hopefully regular eel content on Way Upstream. Neither James nor I know exactly where the path of this eel blog campaign will lead, but our goal is to raise awareness and contribute to the protection of an important component of the freshwater, estuarine and saltwater ecosystems.

James's words, adapted from our conversation:

"The freshwater eel of our campaign, though significant in itself, could come to represent all the species important to the ecosystem that are overlooked because they are not sexy (from a fundraising point of view) as the salmon or bluefin tuna or the whale (the eel is actually sexy, it is probably the most phallic fish on the planet).

I originally became fascinated by the eel because of its amazing life history. This is the only fish in the world that spawns in the middle of an ocean and spends its adult life in freshwater rivers lakes and streams. Most migratory fish like the salmon and shad are anadromous, spawning in freshwater and spending their adult lives in salt. The eel runs in the opposite direction and is called a catadromous fish.

The American freshwater eel, which historically ran up and down virtually every river on the east coast of North America, and the European eel, which occupies nearly every freshwater river that drains the Atlantic Ocean in Europe (including those that drain the Mediterranean; eels even go up the Nile!), spawn in the same general vicinity, in a region of the North Atlantic between Bermuda and the Azores called the Sargasso Sea. Populations of both species are in steep decline, and because the eels' life history in the ocean is still completely a mystery (no one has ever witnessed adult eels spawning in the ocean), we don't know exactly why. From my research over the eleven years I've worked on this book, my bet is that hydropower dams are the major issue (they keep juveniles from entering freshwater habitat, and damage adult eels on downstream migrations that get chopped up or maimed in electricity generating turbines). In Europe populations of eels have dropped nearly 95% (link to piece by Willem Dekker). Considering that this fish once collectively made up over 50% of the freshwater fish biomass of rivers and lakes within its vast range, this loss must be having a significant impact on the health of the ecosystems as a whole.

The freshwater eel (fishes of the genus Anguilla, of which there are fourteen species worldwide, that have unique spawning areas in other oceans), besides being important to the ecosystem, have been important culturally around the world, particularly in Japan and in the Pacific islands of Micronesia and Polynesia where the native eels (the largest in the world being in New Zealand) figure strongly in the mythology; playing the role of water guardian or monster seducer. It is a fish that inspires fear and reverence universally (not to mention having been an important source of food) and it would be a great shame to lose it. It is from Nature that we derive our creativity, our awe and inspiration. We could probably find inspiration in descriptions of the world's diverse creatures in books, from specimens in jars and skins and feathers in Natural History museums, but if we can why not preserve the source, so that we can continue to observe and be stirred by Nature's diversity in life? (This is also, by the way, the idea behind World Trout.)"

"Study Nature, not books."
-Louis Agassiz, famous nineteenth-century Swiss Naturalist

Photos by D. Watts and T. Hoyt Painting by James Prosek


Andrew Bernardin said...

I have just posted the latest edition of Scientia Pro Publica at my blog, Your submission has been included (#25 - Preserve the source).

Gini said...

Fabulous piece. I look forward to reading more in my September edition of National Geographic!

El Pescador said...

Thanks for the compliment Gini. Check back for more eel information here at Way Upstream leading up to the article and book by James Prosek.