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Eons-old eel wiggles toward eternity

Alan Braunholtz

Freshwater eels are mysterious creatures. Just ask Sigmund Freud. As a physiology graduate, he searched vainly for any sign of their sexual organs. After dissecting 400 he gave up changed careers and focused on something a little easier, like the human psyche.

I first encountered eels while tagging along with the big kids on their fishing expeditions to the river behind grandma’s house. The river had lots of eels then, and they usually caught a few. Three feet long covered in slime, sharp teeth and the look of a bad tempered, muscle-bound snake, they had all the ingredients to challenge and fascinate a small child. Eels have the allure of the tough guy, something that fish lack.

When caught they fought. They can breathe through their skin when on land and will leave the water to wriggle around small obstructions when they migrate. Using their slippery body and bite threat, they often got dropped and escaped, squirming with surprising rapidity through the wet grass back to the river. I liked that.



The older kids called them trash, blaming them for any bad fishing days. “Damn eels ate all the fish.” A human trait, that. We still like to point the finger at anyone but ourselves.

The Japanese blame minke whales for the declining southern fish stocks. Forget the fact that southern minkes eat krill and Japan subsidizes one of the largest and callously indifferent fishing fleets in the world, “it’s the whales fault.”

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Trophy hunters love to blame natural predators for any shortage of large game, conveniently overlooking human impacts such as habitat loss and past hunting practices of shooting many animals only to take the best trophy.

For a local example of “yee haa!” stupidity tarnishing the image of all hunters, look no further than the “sportsman” who illegally killed the Piney Lake moose. Shooting a moose is about as challenging as shooting a cow. For one selfish moment of bloodlust this guy deprived hundreds of people the pleasure of watching that moose.

Anyway, a recent article shocked me by saying that the American and European eel are on their way to extinction. An animal I saw as common as a child is almost gone. Their populations are about 1 percent of their 1980 levels. This decline is the result of the usual suspects. Dams block their migration, as oily fish they accumulate persistent toxins, and we over-harvest them at every stage of their life.



Eels are susceptible to overfishing. The eel you may still see in the Mississippi and Great Lakes is a yellow eel. After 15 years this eel starts migrating back to the sea. In this stage it becomes a silver eel. Once in the ocean, the eel swims to an unknown part of the Sargasso Sea between Bermuda and the Bahamas and spawns at great depth.

No one knows this for sure, as no one’s ever seen mature eels here, but we can trace their larvae back to this area. These larvae live off plankton drifting on the currents for one to three years until they reach the shore of the U.S. or Europe. Here they metamorphose into transparent mini-eels (glass eels, a delicacy in Asia) and swim upstream, turning into elvers and then yellow eels.

U.S. and European eels evolved from a common ancestor spawning when the Atlantic was only a narrow strait. As the continents drifted apart, their journey grew. American eels were the fast developers, while the European larvae took longer as they crossed the Atlantic.

When we think of conservation, it’s easy to focus on solid symbols like these beautiful Rocky Mountains. From a biologist’s perspective, these are a mere blip in time. An animal like the eel has been swimming up the eastern rivers of America before these mountains existed. I’m betting a creature resembling a black bear has seen mountains rise and fall, too. Animals are a more solid symbol of these lands than the lands themselves. It’d be a pity to wipe them out because it’s expensive to try or a fashionable economic theory says it’s wrong to tell each other to care.

The eel fisheries are in decline as a bunch of people fish themselves out of a job. I’m more concerned with the children of tomorrow who won’t peer into a river’s shifting weightless reeds and catch a thrill and glimpse of one of nature’s masterpieces.

We’ll also miss out on the chance to learn or co-opt the unbelievable abilities of simple creatures. For example, an eel feeds mostly at night in the dark. Using pressure sensitive organs on their head and sides, they can follow the trail of vortices and eddies left by a passing fish’s body and tail five minutes after it swam by. I’m betting the U.S. Navy would love to know how to do that.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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