Just as salmon are indicator and keystone species for the health of watersheds draining to the Pacific Ocean, eel are indicators and keystones for Atlantic watersheds. American Eel are native to most major freshwater systems from the St. Lawrence River (and even farther north) around to the Mississippi River (and even farther west).
Sadly, American Eel are as diminished in eastern watersheds as are the several species of sea-going salmon in western ones. The Northeast was once blessed with abundant runs of eel—a prized food source for many native peoples—but now we’ve nearly forgotten they belong here.
Why Restore the American Eel?
We will be a richer people after we restore healthy populations of American Eel to Lake Champlain and its tributaries—which are some of the more upset ecosystems in our beloved Adirondack Park. As biologist Jerry Jenkins, author of The Adirondack Atlas, has noted, implementation of the Forever Wild clause of the New York State Constitution, meant to protect the wildness and watersheds of New York’s Adirondack and Catskill Parks, more or less stops at the water line.
Most Adirondack lakes and rivers suffer repeated stocking of exotic fish; most Adirondack rivers have been dammed. Indeed, throughout the eastern United States, most water bodies have been hydrologically altered and stocked with exotic species. We young two-legged residents of the area have also hunted or fished some species to oblivion, reportedly including a freshwater population of Harbor Seals, present in Lake Champlain into historic times.
Dams may be the main culprit behind the diminishment of eel numbers in Lake Champlain and its rivers. Eels are diadromous, being born in the South Atlantic, migrating to and up streams to live much of their adulthoods in freshwater, then returning to the ocean to spawn. The young ones moving upstream can get over or around natural obstacles (such as small waterfalls), but man-made dams can be fatal. The St. Ours and Chambly dams built on Lake Champlain’s outlet, the Richilieu River, and dams built on rivers draining into Lake Champlain, have hindered eel migration, though some of the barriers have been softened with fish ladders.
A Plea for American Eels
Why we should care about eels? First and foremost, they are native members of our regional biota, with their own reasons for being, quite apart from human utility. As well though, they may be a keystone predator species in Lake Champlain; and their decimation may be part of the reason for the current unnatural abundance of Sea Lamprey—bane of Champlain sport fishers. Not that we should base conservation on economic arguments, but it is notable that experienced chefs will pay hefty sums for fresh eel flesh. It is a rich delicacy, and could become a mainstay in revived fisheries in our region.
As for other migratory aquatic species, restoring eels would mean removing obsolete dams, or retrofitting them with fish passages; reducing pollution; discontinuing stocking of exotic species; protecting broad areas of riparian forest along and around water bodies; and regulating fisheries to favor native species. Our rewards will include the chance to see a wonder of the migratory world: a fish that might live many years in a small tributary of the Boquet River then make a heroic journey thousands of miles to spawn the next generation of eels far out in the Atlantic Ocean.
[Note: This article was edited by Michael D’Amico.]
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Are Lampreys an Invasive Species? (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Lake Champlain Lamprey Problem (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Essex-Charlotte Winter Ferry Crossing with Lea Coggio (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Combating sea lamprey on Lake Champlain (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- 70,000 eels set for release in River Lagan (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)