The long, strange journey of the eel

(Photo Credit: Clinton & Charles Robertson)

The shrouded lives of eels serve as a potent reminder of the mystery of the underwater realm. (Photo Credit: Clinton & Charles Robertson)

Each year, eels descend in droves from streams and rivers all over the Atlantic Coast, mostly after dark. Unlike most other migratory fish, they are ‘catadromous,’ meaning they are born and die in the ocean, but live most of their life in fresh water.

The enigmatic fish trace their birthplace to the Sargasso Sea, a two million square-mile spinning gyre near the Bermuda Triangle. But incredibly, over 2,000 years of scientific study have failed to reveal the eel’s spawning secrets. Why the Sargasso? Exactly where do they reunite? At what depth? Do European and American eels fraternize?

Until the 1920s we didn’t even know they were born in the ocean. Aristotle, perhaps the first biographer of eels, supposed that they grew out of earthworm poop.

While their conception is shrouded in mystery, dead silver eels are found in the Sargasso, while their leaf-shaped larvae drift away along the gyre’s strong counter-clockwise currents. From here, they ride the Gulf Stream towards the Atlantic coasts of South and North America and Europe – a trip that can take up to three years.

By the time they reach land, the larvae have morphed into two-inch-long (five cm) ‘glass eels,’ translucent but for their eyes. Once they hit fresh water, they begin to darken and mature into ‘elvers,’ only to change form once again, growing over three feet (one m) long and turning yellow. These ‘golden eels’ rove throughout Nova Scotia’s rich watersheds in the dark of night to feed on insects, worms, mollusks, crustaceans and fish, for anywhere from five to 30 years.

Shifting shape one last time, eels turn a thick blackish-bronze. Sexually maturing into ‘silver eels,’ they then leave their river homes to follow a mysterious call back to the Sargasso Sea. From here it is a grueling trip home, mostly under the cover of darkness, with everything from hydroelectric dams to fishing weirs to thwart their progress.

Ever stubborn, eels have been known to spend weeks, even months, trying to figure out a way around a particular boundary. Amazingly, their slippery skin even allows them to shimmy overland for short distances. Anything to get back to the ocean.

Spiritual significance

The Mi’kmaq have long revered the eel’s tenacity and mystery. Until recently, they were a reliable food and medicine staple that helped sustain Mi’ kmaq families through the long Maritime winters. Also called Ka’t, eels are spiritually important too, appearing in many legends and as ceremonial offerings. Eels continue to help maintain and strengthen community bonds through traditional food-sharing networks that ensure eel fishers distribute their catch within and beyond their extended families.

The Mi’kmaq eel fishery garnered national attention in 1993 when Donald Marshall Jr. was charged for selling eels he caught in Pomquet Bay without a license. His deliberate action ultimately led the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 to confirm the Mi’kmaq treaty right to a moderate livelihood fishery.

One of few eel facts we can grab on to, unfortunately, is that they are declining at alarming rates, not only in Nova Scotia, but around the world. Since the mid-1980s there has been a spectacular drop in the numbers of glass eels found migrating to the north Atlantic, and a corresponding decline in silvers making their way back to the sea. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has now declared the American Eel a species of Special Concern. Commercial fishing, dams, invasive species, habitat loss, water quality degradation, and climate change are all likely culprits.

Until recently, most non-aboriginal Nova Scotians have been disinterested in eels, a fact that protected the species from intensive commercial fishing and allowed Mi’kmaq to sustain their cultural connections to Ka’t. However, as eel populations have declined in other parts of the world, there has been increased demand for glass eels and elvers to stock a thriving Asian aquaculture industry. Despite widespread opposition from Mi’kmaq communities, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced an “experimental” fishery for elvers in 1994.

An image of an elver, or glass eel. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Steep demand from Asia has recently caused prices of elvers to skyrocket. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Prices have shot up explosively for these baby eels. They sell for as much as $1 a piece – a serious windfall when you consider that it takes about 2,600 of them to make up even one pound. The fishery is worth around $24 million and there are only nine license holders in Nova Scotia, a number not likely to increase anytime soon. With profits that high, poaching is a constant concern.

The shrouded lives of eels serve as a potent reminder of the connectedness, fragility and, ultimately, the mystery of the underwater realm. Their complex, migratory life cycle makes eels particularly vulnerable to environmental changes. It also makes protecting eels – and our relationship with them – a real challenge.

Perhaps we could all learn from the Mi’kmaq concept of ecosystem stewardship, known as Netukulimk. Encompassing a deep respect for interconnections – along with a cultural responsibility to protect them – Netukulimk is often taught through respect and reverence for eels as a source of life. Certainly not as a source of quick, easy cash.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Small Scales blog.

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