What’s Up With Eels
By (Mako)Mike Plaia
Originally Published in On The Water Magazine
Ask any avid striped bass fisherman to name his favorite baits and the odds are
that eels, in one form or another will appear in the listing. Will that continue to be
so? That is one of the questions being pondered by the Atlantic States Marine
Fishery Commission (ASMFC) the Gulf States Marine Fishery Commission
(GSMFC), the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) and the United States
Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS).
The first alarm bells regarding the decline in the population of the American eel,
Anguilla Rostrata, came from Canada, where fishery management officials noticed
a steep decline in the numbers of eels ascending various fish ladder systems
along the St. Lawrence River. The steepness of the declines in the number of eels
counted in these fish ladders prompted officials of the Canadian Department of
Fisheries and Oceans to begin an immediate inquiry into the reason for the
decline and to immediately notify their United States counterparts of their
The American eel is found in waters from the Canadian maritime provinces to the
various countries in Central America, including the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts
of the United States. Obviously, the bulk of their natural habitat is within the U.S.
and therefore the Canadian scientists were concerned that U.S. policies
concerning the eel would have a direct and immediate impact on their own eel
Before we get into the science and politics of eel management, it would be helpful
for us to understand the biology of the American eel. For the basics see the
sidebar. What is truly amazing to me, as a layman, is what we don’t know about
the biology of the eel.
For example, we don’t know how long it takes from the time an elver ascends the
fresh water streams to the time the mature eels descend those streams to make
their spawning run back out into the far Atlantic.
We also don’t know if all of the eels from a particular year class make their
spawning run together, or if eels from a given year class mature at separate times
and spawn together with maturing eels from different year classes. We suspect,
but don’t know for sure, that eels from all over their range arrive at the spawning
grounds in the Saragasso Sea at approximately the same time. We also suspect
that the young eels, or elvers, that arrive on our shores during the late winter or
spring are the same eels that hatched as a result on the previous winter’s spawn.
We do know some things about eels that will be very helpful in managing their
population. First of all we do know that all of the mature (silver) eels that will
migrate and spawn this fall were born twenty to twenty-five years ago; that’s how
long it takes an eel to grow from an elver to fully adult silver eel. This means that
any eel management plan will have to have a very long time horizon, since we won’
t be able to observe an increase in elver migration up our streams and rivers for a
long time to come.
We do know that, based on eel studies performed on eels in coastal Maryland, all
eels over approximately sixteen inches are females. There is no reason to suspect
that this figure is any different for eels anywhere else in their natural Range we do
know that eels in the more northerly part of their range grow more slowly that their
brothers and sisters that make their home in warmer waters. We do know that
baby eels, or elvers, do not migrate inshore and upstream in any particular
pattern, so an elver born in the far Atlantic might wind up in a river in Nova Scotia
or Honduras or anywhere in between.
Finally, we do know that any eel that is killed for any reason will never spawn. Let
me say that again, because it is a very important point; any eel that we kill will
never spawn. Based upon the public comments received by the ASMFC, this is a
point that seems to be lost on the general public. What this means is that, unike
most other fisheries, imposing minimum or maximum size limits on eels that are
harvested will have very little effect on the spawning population. Killing an elver
removes one fish from the future spawning population, killing one yellow eel
removes one fish from the spawning population and killing one silver eel removes
one fish from the spawning population. If we want to increase the future spawning
population we have to reduce eel mortality at all life stages.
What are the reasons for the decline of the eel population? The scientists
attribute the decline to two main factors, fishing pressure and habitat loss. It’s
estimated that dams and other obstructions hinder eel migration into about 84%
of their natural freshwater habitat. Since migrating silver eels usually stick to the
lower part of the water column during their downstream migration, the Eel
Technical Committee of the ASMFC believes that generator turbines, used for
hydroelectric power generation, are one of the leading causes of mortality for
adult silver eels.
How bad is the population decline? It’s pretty bad. The Canadian eel counts at
various locations on the St Lawrence River declined from 935,000 in 1985 to
8,000 in 1993 and to almost zero in 2001. Since the St. Lawrence River is roughly
at the northern extreme of the eels’ natural range, the scientists expect that any
problems with the eel population will show up there first and similar declines will
take place in the rest of the range, if nothing is done. Commercial landing of eels
in the United States has declined from 1.8 million pounds in 1985 to 649 thousand
pounds in 2002. 2002 is the latest year when complete data is available, but most
of the fishery managers seem to think that the commercial landings have declined
even further since then.
So where do we go from here? Basically the fate of the American eel and the
fishermen that rely on them, is on a two track course. The first track begins with a
petition to list the American eel as an endangered species, This petition was filed
by two individuals on November 12, 2004, with both the USF&WS and NOAA
Fisheries. (Both federal agencies have jurisdiction over the American eel.)
Under the Endangered Species Act the agencies are required to make a
preliminary finding on whether or not such a listing may be justified, within 90 days
of the date that the petition was filed. The USF&WS and NOAA fisheries issued
their so-called 90 day finding and found that the petition did present “substantial
information” indicating that a listing under Endangered Species Act may be
warranted for the American eel.
Under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act the USF&WS and NOAA
Fisheries now have to embark on a twelve month long data gathering exercise,
called a status review. Both agencies have indicated that they intend to conduct
this status review by convening a series of workshops for fisheries managers from
the various regions. There will be three regional workshops, the first is scheduled
to be held on November 30 through December 2nd in West Virginia for fishery
managers from the Gulf coast states. The workshops for the fishery managers
from the Atlantic States and the Great Lakes States have yet to be scheduled.
Once all three workshops have been completed there will be a fourth “super”
workshop, which will evaluate the finding of the three previous gatherings and
recommend what action the two agencies should take. In a separate, but related
action the ASMFC Eel Management Board has asked the USF&WS and NOAA
fisheries to undertake a stock assessment for the American eel. Presumably, this
assessment for the ASMFC and the status review for the endangered species
petition will be one and the same.
Once the two federal agencies have completed their status review they have until
the end of the twelve month period, roughly mid-February, to make their final
determination as to whether or not the eel should be listed as a threatened or
endangered species. Assuming that they do decide that a listing is warranted,
they will publish their proposed finding and the public will have two months to
submit comments. After that the rule would be published in final form and would
become effective a month later. So the earliest that an action under Endangered
Species Act could have any effect on any uses of the American eel would be
roughly in May of 2006. Given the usual bureaucratic delays and foot dragging, I
would expect a more realistic date to be some time in the fall of 2006. After all, the
initial petition was filed in November of 2004 and they aren’t even holding the first
workshop of the status review until more than a year later. Whether you think
prompt action is warranted or not, you certainly aren’t going to get it.
The second track in the developing eel management regimes, and the one that is
more likely to yield quicker results, is the process being taken by the Atlantic
States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC started this process
back in November of 2004, when the first reports of a dramatic drop in eel
populations came in from Canada. The ASMFC had an eel Fishery Management
Plan which had been issued in April of 2000, but when the Canadian reports
arrived it was immediately obvious that the 2000 Fishery Management Plan was
woefully out of date. The current activities started with the issuance of a “Public
Information Document” issued by the ASMFC in November of 2004. This
document described the current state of eel management efforts, the current
known biology of the eel, and current indicators of the stock status. It was
intended as a basic briefing document for the public on the current plight of the
eel. (The complete document is available on the internet at the ASMFC website at
http://www.asmfc.org/speciesDocuments/eel/fmps/PID.pdf. ) Since then the
ASMFC has held a series of meetings to obtain the public’s comments on the
future of eels management and has directed the American Eel Technical
Committee to conduct a study of the status of the stock of eels.
The American Eel Technical Committee has already recommended a complete
closure of all directed fisheries for the adult silver eels. So far the American Eel
management board has not acted on that recommendation.
The American Eel Technical Committee met on October 26-27th to receive the
draft stock assessment prepared by its fisheries scientists. While the committee
has not made this stock assessment public, the “word on the street” is that it
shows that the American Eels is in a sharp decline and that drastic actions may be
necessary to save it. The Technical Committee decided to keep the stock
assessment under wraps until it is reviewed by other scientists in what is known as
a “peer review” process, which will take place in December. This is an action
where the work that went into the stock assessment is reviewed by scientists that
were not involved in the stock assessment to insure that the work meets current
fisheries science standards.
The American Eel Management Board met shortly after the Technical Committee
meeting in October 31st, as part of the ASMFC’s fall meeting schedule. While the
results of the stock assessment were not on the Board’s agenda, it was certainly
in the minds of most of the board members that attended the meeting. One of the
actions taken by the Board was to establish that the fishery for eels to be used as
bait was equal in importance to eel fisheries where the eels were to be used as
food. This should at least insure equal treatment between fishermen and other
consumers. The Board also approved moving forward with Addendum I to the
American Eel Fishery Management Plan. The committee staff will draft Addendum I
and public comments will be invited as well as public hearings held throughout the
States that make up the ASMFC. Whether the Addendum can move forward
before the Stock Assessment is presented to the Management Board is unclear.
But in either event, the Management Board will be meeting again in January, at
which point it will be presented with the Stock Assessment, and the public
comment/hearings can get underway shortly after their meeting.
The members of the American Eels Management Board that I spoke to were very
clearly concerned about the reported sharp declines in the eel population. But they
were also concerned that the data used by the Technical Committee was from
relatively few areas, which may or may not be representative of the eel population
through its entire range. They were also concerned that, because of the relatively
few data collection points, any severe restrictions that they may enact would be
subject to legal challenges by the Delaware Valley Fish Company ( the leader in
commercial eel exploitation).
While the ASMFC is deliberating, the U.S.F&WS and NOAA fisheries are
conducting their own status review as required by the Endangered Species Act.
Initially the two federal agencies found that the Endangered species Act petition,
filed last November, presented enough evidence to warrant further proceedings.
The two agencies have presented a plan to the ASMFC (for informational
purposes) where they will conduct four workshops to hear the comments of the
various regional fishery management agencies. The workshops are to begin at the
end of November with a gathering of the managers from the Gulf States Fishery
Management Council, to be followed by as yet unscheduled workshops for the
Atlantic States Fishery Management Council members as well as the Great Lakes
Fishery Management Council members. The fourth and final workshop will be a
“super” workshop that will review the findings of the three regional workshops and
issue a final status report.
As you might imagine, none of this bureaucratic maneuvering takes place quickly.
In addition to the normal bureaucratic delays all of the agencies involved will be
proceeding carefully with one eye on the environmental groups and the Delaware
Valley Fish Company, any or all of which won’t hesitate to file a lawsuit if they find
an undotted i or an uncrossed t. Best estimates are that the ASMFC will adopt a
new Fishery Management plan for the American eel sometime before next
summer. The Great Lakes Fishery Management Council, which has been working
closely with he ASMFC, will likely follow suit shortly after the ASMFC acts. The Gulf
States Fishery Management Council is likely to wait until the U.S. F&WS and
NOAA fisheries make their findings under the Endangered Species Act
Not matter how you cut it, the outlook for buying eels for bait for next year, as well
as in years to come, doesn’t look rosy. While this may not be the best of news for
the fanatical striper fishermen, there are other baits out there. The recent trend
toward using live scup is just one indication of what imaginative fishermen can
come up with when pressed to use their ingenuity. The one thing I would urge all
readers to keep an eye on is what any new fishery management plan does for the
eels. Any plan that deprives the fishermen of their bait while allowing the
wholesale slaughter of the eels to continue should be a non-starter. I urge
everyone to keep a sharp eye on further developments and not hesitate to get
involved, if it looks like the eels are going to come out the losers in this process.