The Curious Case of the American Eel

A researcher at Ontario's Glenora Fisheries Station tags and measures an eel brought in by a fisherman. The eels are then transported past the St. Lawrence Seaway's main dams so they can swim out to sea to spawn. Credit: Adam Hinterthuer

When most people think of eels, they immediately turn their thoughts to the ocean. Perhaps, even, to the “electrical” variety. But there was a time in this country when eels inhabited nearly every river and stream east of the Mississippi. The American eel spawns in a region of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea. In its larval phase, it’s carried by ocean currents to the Eastern U.S. coast. It matures along the way and, upon reaching South Carolina, or Maryland, or the St. Lawrence Seaway, it is able to swim up into freshwater environments to live out most of its adult life.

This makes the eel, catadromous – in a reverse of the salmon life history, it makes its pilgrimage to be born and to die out at sea, rather than at the headwaters of a freshwater river.
The American eel was once a staple food of native Great Lakes tribes and it’s estimated that the eel once made up nearly half the fish biomass in Lake Ontario.
But the most prolific fish no one’s ever heard of is now a rare sight in any U.S. waters. A recent story in the Chesapeake Bay Journal explains why.
Another good story from our neighbors up north ran a few years ago in the Canadian magazine, The Walrus.
A cliche among stories of endangered organisms is that “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” The story of the American eel may unfortunately be one where no one ever knew what they had.