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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: The Eel and the Estuary

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters, formerly known as Sustainable Saturday, focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
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What does your sushi dinner have to do with Haverstraw teenagers in hip waders? More than you can imagine.

If your raw-fish feast isn’t complete without some sweet, smoky unagi (freshwater eel), think about this: Your favorite sushi munch appeared on the 2010 Greenpeace “red list” of overfished, unsustainable seafood species. Catch numbers of the migratory American eel—now replacing the dwindling Japanese version—have been declining rapidly since the 1980s. By 2000, that decline was catching the attention of environmental watchdogs everywhere, but especially on the east coast of North America, the American eel’s home range.

The American Eel Citizen Science Project was launched in 2008 by the Hudson River Estuary Program and Hudson River Research Reserve of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC). With training and supervision, community volunteers began to monitor and collect migratory data in the Hudson estuary’s creeks and streams. From two initial sites in 2008, the project has grown to twelve sites, from New York City to Albany County. It has involved over 550 volunteers and about half a million eels. “We’re doing meticulous, good science in collecting our data,” said project coordinator Chris Bowser. “But this is above all an education program. It’s about building a constituency of people who understand that this animal—more than any other—links together oceans, estuaries and the entire watershed.”

How to catch an eel

elver

Juvenile eel, or elver. Photo: courtesy Laurie Seeman

The American eel can reach 4 feet in length, and weigh over 17 pounds. But don’t worry: It’s not electric, and study volunteers don’t have to wrangle full-grown specimens. During the 8-week eel season (March to May), they use fyke nets in streams to trap one- and two-year-old eel babies—pinky-length, transparent “glass eels.” After counting, weighing and carefully recording their “catch,” the monitors carry the glass eels in buckets farther upstream and release them to continue on their way.

And these babies have already come a long way. They are hatched in the Sargasso Sea—a rotating ocean gyre near Bermuda and the Bahamas. The invisible larvae drift for months on the Gulf Stream current up the North American coast. As they transform into tiny transparent eels, they float into tidal estuaries, like the Hudson River, from Mexico to Canada, and sometimes even to Europe.

sargasso sea

The Sargasso Sea, bounded by rotating ocean currents. Image courtesy NYS DEC

Nimble young eels can wriggle up rapids and other obstacles, even crossing grass and climbing small dams with rough surfaces. They swim against the current all the way, into brackish rivers, freshwater streams and lakes. There, they feed and grow for about twenty years, finally migrating back down to their birthplace to spawn and die. The circle of eel life goes on—or should go on.

A county-community partnership

fyke net search

Laurie Seeman, Nisan Banin and Joanna Dickey look for juvenile eels at the neck of the fyke net at Minisceongo Creek in West Haverstraw. Photo courtesy Laurie Seeman

The Rockland County outpost of the American Eel project was the brainchild of NYS DEC’s Chris Bowser and two founding members of the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance. Laurie Seeman and Joanna Dickey (whose Strawtown Studio is a sponsor of this column) were attending a DEC educational event in 2009 when Bowser pulled them aside to pitch his project and the need for a site in Rockland.

What started as a short test in the Minisceongo Creek (on the grounds of the NRG-Bowline power plant in West Haverstraw, with their full cooperation) has become a long-term community science project. “Parents and their children have been coming back year after year,” said Seeman. “It’s exciting that families can do citizen science together here in Rockland.”

fyke net

Fyke net in the Minisceongo Creek in West Haverstraw. Photo: Susan Hellauer

The Minisceongo Creek site monitoring is now coordinated by Nicole Laible of the Rockland County Division of Environmental Resources Soil & Water Conservation District. “Right now we have about 41 full time monitoring volunteers, and we have the Haverstraw Community Center, who bring an additional 30 middle and high school students,” said Laible. “These youths either have an established connection with the River or have never experienced the great outdoors before, so they all get very excited about this.” Laible keeps the schedule of daily monitoring, runs training sessions, sends collected data to the NYS DEC, and gets right down there in her petite hip waders, monitoring the volunteers and their handling of the infant eels.

An aquatic obstacle course . . .

eel ladder

Low-cost eel ladder at Furnace Brook in Westchester County. Photo courtesy NYS DEC

Habitat loss, erosion, pollution and stormwater culverts all disrupt the juvenile eels’ uphill estuary journey. But the most common obstacles they face are dams: small flood-control or fishing-hole structures, man-made lake and reservoir dams, and massive hydroelectric plants.

“We’ve put a lot of dams on our streams over time,” said DEC coordinator Chris Bowser. “But in recent years there’s been a lot more state agency attention paid to their effect on fish migration and in particular on eel migration. I think that’s because we are raising the profile of this animal.” He said that removal of unused dams is being discussed, along with installation of ladders and other devices to help eels get above barriers. “Bottom line: it’s about restoring stream connectivity.”

. . . and a culinary one

Eels have been a sought-after delicacy and an important source of fat and protein at least since humans dwelt in caves. In fact, a more historically accurate Thanksgiving (though a less sustainable one) would include a platter of the American eel that helped preserve the Mayflower pilgrims.
 Today, it’s not only migratory roadblocks that threaten the American eel. Because of unrestrained overconsumption in recent years, the Japanese freshwater eel population has crashed. Asian eel farms (mostly in China) supply their gourmet market by importing American glass eels and raising them to adulthood. (They won’t reproduce in captivity without their arduous spawning journey.)

American eel

Anguilla rostrata–the American eel. “Fear death,” wrote the Greek comic poet Philetaerus in the fourth century B.C., “for when you’re dead, you cannot then eat eels.” Photo courtesy NYS DEC

Their price can fluctuate wildly, but in the last couple of years, juvenile American eels have fetched north of $2,000 per pound on the Asian wholesale market. They can be caught legally during eel season in Maine and South Carolina, but the crazy price is an invitation to poachers.

Little eels, big data

eel count

Rockland County volunteers count, weigh and record their wriggly “catch and release” guests. Photo courtesy Laurie Seeman

We know where the eels go, but what about the data? According to Chris Bowser, it’s more than just this year’s meticulously collected weights and measures. “We’ve put together a citizen science program to collect years of ‘temporal data’,’” he said. “This can show us trends and patterns—how things are changing over time in the Hudson estuary.”

This study’s big data about little eels are sent to the NYS DEC Region 3 Fisheries in New Paltz. From there, the results are shared and used to help DEC scientists see patterns, pinpoint problems, and seek solutions. And those solutions—like the removal of unnecessary dams and culverts, and the prevention of erosion—are not just about an unlimited supply of unagi for your maki. They’re about re-connecting our entire estuary, from the Statue of Liberty to Albany County to the very last mountain lake.

Give an eel a hand

The upstream trip on Sparkill Creek, which winds through western Orangetown to the Piermont Marsh, is a more challenging climb than most for little eels. The Hudson Estuary Program is about to install a new “eel ladder” for them in the creek. It’s made of plain old PVC pipe, with netting inside to help the eels get a grip and get over a dam. They’ll emerge into a bucket, be counted, recorded, gently transported upstream and released.

haverstraw eels

Middle- and high-school students from the Haverstraw Community Center counted seven glass eels in the fyke net on Thursday. They are led by project coordinator Nicole Laible (blue plaid shirt). Photo: Susan Hellauer

Meanwhile, it’s clear that all the keepers of this project are on the same page. “At the state level, we’ve been able to create a really strong interest around eels and it has influenced other DEC programs,” said Chris Bowser. “We’re now taking a much greater look at the stream connectivity of our tributaries, and that deeper look has a lot to do with the attention we’ve put on eels.”

And how do eel monitors feel about ordering the tasty, snaky fish for dinner? “I personally don’t eat it,” said Nicole Laible. “Once you learn about these critters and work with them, it’s pretty hard to disconnect.”

Learn more:

To volunteer for the American Eel Migration Project, or other Rockland County citizen-science volunteer opportunities, contact Nicole Laible by email or call: 845-364-2669

NYS DEC Eel Migration Study website, with video

NYS DEC Community Science Volunteer Opportunities in the Hudson River Estuary Program

US Fish and Wildlife Service: The American Eel

Natural History Magazine: “Slippery Business” (no date)

Featured image: Glass eels. Courtesy NYS DEC.

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.

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