The Strange and Precarious Rise of the Eel

By STEPHEN C.  SAUTNER  (from NY Times)
March 8, 1998

A couple of seasons ago, I stopped fishing with live eels, the quintessential bait used for the biggest striped bass. My reasoning was simple: I had begun to feel sorry for the eels. But it should be no surprise that I haven't caught a truly large striper since.

And I should add that my sympathy has not yet extended to other fish baits such as bloodworms, live leeches or sea lamprey larvae -- nor to the game fish that pursue them.

But eels have such a completely weird and unique life cycle that they deserve, if not outright clemency, at least a bit more respect.

For centuries, no one quite knew where eels came from, and bizarre theories abounded as to their origins. Izaak Walton, for example, after observing eels swimming in waterways throughout England, concluded that they must emerge spontaneously from dewy river banks.

Yet the actual genesis of the eel may be the strangest story of all, sounding a lot like the folklore that claims you can't catch a northern pike in the summer because all its teeth fall out.

The truth is that unlike salmon, shad, striped bass and other anadromous fish that live in the sea but ascend freshwater rivers to spawn, eels do the exact opposite, putting them among a select group of catadromous fish. Each fall, large females journey sometimes hundreds of miles down rivers and streams to join the smaller males, which mysteriously never stray far from tidewater. Together, they begin a seemingly backward spawning run offshore.

It gets stranger. In the mid-1920s a Danish scientist, after recovering some eggs off Bermuda, discovered that American eels, not content to mate just anywhere, migrate by the millions to spawn literally in the middle of the North Atlantic, in the Sargasso Sea. The similar-looking but distinct European eel shares this same distant spawning ground.

After the eggs hatch, shoals of larvae begin an epic swim inshore, undoubtedly falling prey along the way to pretty much anything with a mouth. During their voyage, they develop into "glass eels" -- transparent, wiggling critters about an inch long. Shortly after arriving in coastal waters, they settle to the bottom, darken in color and go about the serious business of being full-fledged eels.

Fishermen have undoubtedly trapped, netted, speared and hooked eels for millennia. In his fascinating essay "The Bottom of the Harbor," the writer Joseph Mitchell describes how 50 years ago, Italian- and German-American families would net them by the barrel from the hulks of sunken barges off Staten Island and Bayonne, N.J.

It's only recently, however, that these unusual fish have found themselves in the center of what amounts to a gold rush. Roasted eel, it turns out, is quite the rage in Japan and in Japanese restaurants in the United States.

In the early 1990s, overseas buyers began paying exorbitant prices (up to $350 per pound) for glass eels, which they shipped to Asia and farm-raised to adulthood. This followed a virtual collapse of the eel fishery in both Europe and Asia. Since eels won't reproduce in captivity (no one has found a way to match the unique conditions of the Sargasso Sea in a fish tank), they must be netted from the wild. Also, only glass eels will take to the commercial feeds used by fish farmers.

Suddenly, anyone with a dip net and a bucket willing to stake out a culvert in a salt marsh could make two weeks' salary on a single tide. Crowds of new fishermen jammed creeks and coastal rivers from Maine to Virginia, scooping up the baby eels by the tens of thousands.

Conservationists and fishing groups warned that such harvesting could spell doom not only for the eels, but also for the wide range of fish and birds that eat them. The coastal states, erring on the side of caution, quickly imposed size limits, restricted seasons and placed outright bans on glass-eel fishing.

For its part, New Jersey is considering a bill that would open a two-month glass-eel season during peak migration. The eel fishermen have even hired a lobbyist. Passage of such legislation, before biologists have determined the impact on the marine ecosystem of removing large numbers of young eels, would be premature and potentially disastrous.

Until the scientific jury comes in on this issue, patience must override the desire to make a quick buck. If not, the eel may find itself in some impressive company -- that of the Atlantic salmon, bluefin tuna, broadbill swordfish, Pacific salmon and other fishes whose populations have collapsed because of greed.