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Are American eels endangered? Should we care?

Endangered American eels may not appear on conservation billboards, but they play a critical role in the Atlantic's aquatic food web.

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    Each spring, researchers with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science count the young eels that migrate into Virginia's estuaries and freshwater tributaries. Members of the team have been monitoring the spring migration of juvenile eels since 2000, partnering with fisheries teams in other East Coast states to provide the first comprehensive picture of the eels coast-wide population. Understanding the size and dynamics of the species population is key to its effective management and protection.
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The American eel may be ugly, but if it disappears, the impacts on the ecosystem will be even uglier.

Anguilla rostrata is a catadromous fish, meaning that it migrates from freshwater to spawn in saltwater. The eels travel 1,600 miles from the Sargasso Sea to freshwater rivers and streams, and then back to the sea. 

Unless, of course, they are intercepted by fishermen who sell them to Asian food markets, which pay top dollar for young "glass eels" that they raise to maturity.

Overfishing and habitat loss has caused the American eel population to decline sharply in recent years, prompting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider listing the species Under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected this month.

“They’re not pretty, cuddly, animals,” says Forrest Galante, marine and wildlife biologist, in an interview. “They’ll never be the poster child of conservation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save them. The US is supporting the sale of tens of thousands of baby animals to Asia in this case and it's just not right.”

“Eels are wonderful,” says Simon Watt, president of Britain's Ugly Animal Conservation Society, in an interview. “Partly because they are so mysterious.  We know so little about them even though they have been known to exist for hundreds of years. There for it imperative that we study them to understand just how threatened they might be. It belongs to the freshwater eel family, the Anguillidae and so is the only eel of its kind in the US.”

Dr. Caleb McClennen, executive director for the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society Marine Conservation Program, says in an interview that “It’s a combination of pressures that have led to the decline with the top two being the significant loss of habitat and directed fishing of all life stages, particularly the larval or glass stage.”

According to Dr. McClennen, 84 percent of the eels’ fresh water river habitat has disappeared. Maine and the Carolinas are responsible for fishing the glass stage eels, in particular.

Steven Shepard, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says in an interview that a consistent decline in the population plus habitat fragmentation by dams, fishing and other potential environmental factors have resulted in petitions from several conservation groups requesting the species be listed. 

“Dams fragment habitat and if they have hydroelectric they kill the eels. There are thousands of dams all along all these rivers in the Eastern United States. There’s a stressor that’s very widespread, very chronic” says Mr. Shepard. “The fisheries are also very widespread. In Maine, Chesapeake Bay and those have been reduced to address the decline in the population.”

Should this status change pass, Shepard says that new restrictions “would have to be crafted to address the take. It could be as drastic as none at all or a very limited amount. That would have to be decided.”

According to Mike Crowe, publisher of the commercial fishing newspaper Fisherman’s Voice, in Maine elvers are worth more than $2,100 per pound to buyers in Asia adding, “They’re plentiful in Maine because we’ve taken care of our fresh water rivers and removed dams so the eels can get to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea.”

Darrell Young, co-director of the Maine Elver Fishermens Association, argues against a status change. “Adding severe limitations on the eels would impact this area in a big way," he says "It would put over a thousand fishermen out of work completely.” 

Mr. Galante adds, “People have to have an understanding of where food is coming from and where it’s going and think about the impact we have on it. At the end of the day, it’s all just part of a complicated, intricate food web and without that eel, the whole thing can crumble.”

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