Volume 14, Issue 15 ~ April 13 - April 19, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

What a Pickle the Eel’s In

In mud, eel is,

In clay, none is.

—The nursery rhyme In Fir Tar Is

To this writer, an eel is nothing more than an aquatic snake, and anyone who has read this column more than a few times is aware of my opinion (also my fear) of snakes. Moreover, I figure I’ve got a lot of company. You might say:

Things that slither

put us in a dither;

If we wade today

it must be in clay.

Welcome to the world of ophidiophobics; we’ll leave herpetology to those peculiar folks who delight in observing and studying creepy ’n’ crawling critters. Yet, much as I disdain living things that have no shoulders, I must admit concern for the plight of Anguilla rostrata, which is about the last thing on earth one would think would be vulnerable to the worldwide woes of the environment.

These shoulderless creatures that swim in both fresh and salt waters, better known as the American eel, can live for a time out of water, can survive being on a hook baited for rockfish for hours, will swim lively for a spell after a bluefish has nipped off more than their tails (where does a tail start on a snake-like creature?) and can keep on living in mud and muck in dry spells.

Yet coastal herpetologists as well as fishery scientists are concerned about the welfare of the common lowly eel, whose numbers appear to have taken a nose dive during the past decade. Seeing that I’m a fisherman, to me this is worrisome — as it should be among others who wet a hook.

Judging by the popularity of eels as bait for rockfish, these slippery, slimy water snakes rate high in the diet of stripers — and at various stages in their lives, it’s the same with more than a few other fishes.

When something goes awry among a particular forage fish, it can affect both the predators that feed upon it and other forage fish as changes come about in the diets of the predators. Worse still, it can be a strong hint that things are amiss in the aquatic environment.

It’s like the canaries and the miners. And could there be a domino effect?

The way I see it, eels are like many other creatures of the water such as hardheads, white perch, bluefish, blowfish, Norfolk spot and many, many more. They’re taken for granted.

Downhill and Back Up

For some time, those who catch eels commercially for food or bait noticed their numbers appeared to be sliding, but that didn’t alarm many: Ups and downs are not unusual with most species, some of whose populations go in cycles. But in 2004, up north of the border, Canadian fisheries scientists had become concerned enough that they warned American scientists.

The Canadians reported they were witnessing dramatic reductions in eel numbers ascending fish ladders in the St. Lawrence River complex. Their concerns reached the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which undertook a coastal assessment, from Maine to Florida.

The results appear somewhat muddled, though they brought enough concern that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering measures that could classify eels as endangered or threatened. Either classification would put a stop on fishing for them. A decision will probably be announced this spring.

Things are moving along faster with eels than in other corners (such as declining white marlin stocks, long under study) because legal action has been taken against Fish and Wildlife to force the listing of eels under the Endangered Species Act. Such petitions don’t allow for much dilly-dallying; the time schedule is tight, with Fish and Wildlife obliged to issue a preliminary finding within 90 days.

Fish and Wildlife decided there was enough evidence to move ahead with a status review to determine whether eels should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, a few months back, they got more involved, recommending that all member states make detailed reports of commercial catches of eels.

We’re almost starting from scratch in counting eels. What better way to evaluate their numbers and trends than close monitoring of the one mechanism that produces enough eels for tallying: the commercial fishery?

It has been more than three decades now since the first concerns were expressed about eel numbers (though the greatest declines came about since the mid-’90s), and the late ’70s coincides with growing human market for the species in Europe and Japan.

’Tis long been said that once any species draws a good market demand, one can expect that species’ numbers to diminish. It’s the economics of the harvest. Keep your fingers crossed. If overcatching is the culprit, that can easily be remedied.

On the other hand, Fish and Wildlife could end overcatching woes in one sweep as early as next November by declaring eels threatened or endangered. Otherwise, it will be a matter of the time it takes for Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has a reputation of being painfully slow, to implement quotas and other catch restrictions.

But is overcatching the problem?

Woes Aplenty

Scientists are checking out other possible problems such as the myriad dams and other structures that eels face in reaching fresh waters where they remain for as much as 20 years. They face those same obstacles again as they head back to the Sargasso Sea, where they will spawn and die.

Another potential woe came to light last year from studies in the St. Lawrence complex: Angullicolla crassus is showing up in more places and numbers along the East Coast. When this parasite is ingested by eels, it can eventually reach their swim bladders and prevent them from returning to the ‘must’ Sargasso Sea to spawn.

Then again, it could be something else we’re totally unaware of in these times when environmentally stressed oceans, bays and rivers seem to be facing new problems every day. If now it’s the hardy eel, what could be next?

The live eel is prized by some Chesapeake fishermen, primarily rockfish chasers, as bait, and much more by striper fishermen to the north, where it’s No. 1 on the list. It’s also coveted by crab potters. Undoubtedly eel will become much more expensive. The same on the human gourmet market here and abroad.

But price is the price we pay for overcatching and taking things for granted; now let’s be hopeful that’s the only price we will have to pay. Enough said.

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