Hardy eels are holding on in R.I.

Hardy eels are holding on in R.I.

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The American eel has been a valuable resource in Rhode Island for hundreds of years.

Narragansett tribal historian Lorén Spears tells a story about how her father-in-law and tribal elder, Robin Spears, used to fish for eels on the salt marshes.

“What they used to do to get the eels is they would walk through the eel grass at night, and the eels would actually stand up like fence posts and then you harvest the eels,” she said. “Then, you would roll them in Jonnycake meal when you were cooking them. The eels are unique, because they cross the land, which is why you could get them in the eel grass.”

The Narragansetts also used eel skins. “You could tan the skin and use as you would use a snakeskin, where it could be part of clothing or adornment,” she said.

Today in Rhode Island, eels are still eaten, but they are most often used as bait in the recreational fishery. Catch limits are 25 eels for individuals and 50 eels for large recreational fishing boats. The eels must be over 9 inches long.

Mike Cardinal, owner of Cardinal Bait and Tackle in Misquamicut, sells live eels. “It’s simply one of the best baits for striper fishing,” he said.

Recent dam removals on rivers like the Pawcatuck have improved passage for both fish and eels. Special eel ladders, which have slower water flows than regular fish ladders, have been installed at locations such as Horseshoe Falls on the Pawcatuck River.

Cardinal said he had noticed eel numbers improving in recent years. “Locally, in the Pawcatuck River, that used to be loaded with eels, really a lot of them when I was a young man. Then they started disappearing, and now, they’re making a pretty good comeback.”

The American eel is the only freshwater eel in North America. Resilient and hardy, eels can adapt to fluctuations in water temperature and can even cross small patches of land if they have to. All American eels begin their lives in one place: the Sargasso Sea, an area of warm water in the North Atlantic between the West Indies and the Azores. From there, the tiny, larval eels drift on ocean currents to their homes from Greenland to Brazil.

Eels are known as catadromous species, because they spend their lives in fresh water and return to salt water to spawn, undergoing several metamorphoses. When eel larvae reach the coast, the young eels, which are now 2 to 3 inches long, are beginning to develop an eel-like shape. At this stage, they are known as glass eels because they are transparent.

When eels reach brackish waters such as tidal rivers, their color begins to darken and they become elvers. Then, before they reach reproduction age, they become yellow eels, young adults whose colors range from yellowish green to brown. In the final adult stage of development, they’re called silver eels.

Mature eels undergo additional physical changes to enable them to travel long distances in salt water when they migrate to the Sargasso Sea. They can grow to 5 feet long and can live for 40 years.

Save the Bay River Keeper Rachel Calabro studies eels as part of her habitat restoration work. She said that while the harvest of glass eels is prohibited in Rhode Island, there is a legal glass eel fishery in Maine, which has led to poaching, especially in Massachusetts.

“Several people have been caught over the years around the Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay taking eels and driving them to Maine,” she said. “Maine is the one place where you can sell them legally, but you’re only allowed to take them in Maine. You’re not allowed to take them in other states, but people do.”

Japanese and Chinese buyers pay top dollar for glass eels, which are shipped to Asia and raised in pens.

“They want it for sushi and other things, so they come here and buy them, and then they raise them in ponds in China and Japan and they mature them there,” Calabro explained. “They can go for up to $2,000 a pound…Somebody can make up to $10,000 a night just poaching eels.”

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management monitors eel populations by trapping and counting glass eels at two sites: Narrow River in Narragansett and the Annaquatucket River in North Kingstown. Fisheries biologist Phillip Edwards said the annual 12-week population survey began on April 10.

“We employ a modified Irish elver ramp and trap,” he said. “It’s a small trap where we catch the glass eels as they are coming in from marine waters. We count them all each week, and we take a sub-sample of 60 and we get lengths, weights and pigmentation stage.”

The eel run intensifies through the spring, peaking in May. Eels begin their fall migration when the water starts to cool.

“Typically in the fall, when the nights become cooler and water temperatures decrease, usually during a rain event,” Edwards said. “When the water comes up, they’ll go right out with the currents and these will be the silver eels. After they’ve been in fresh water for 10 to 20 years, they’ll make their out-migration. Their digestive system changes, their eyes change, they begin to make that long journey to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn once, and it is presumed that they perish.”

Eels are important to both freshwater and marine ecosystems.

“They’re an important prey species, but they’re also very important as foragers for the food web,” Edwards said, adding that they were eaten by fish and birds like ospreys.

“Many, many predator birds, sports fish liked striped bass, but also a lot of your freshwater species. Birds and freshwater fish will eat them when they are at their various life stages.”

Calabro said eels were an unusually hardy species.

“Once they get big, they’re very, very strong, and they’re covered in slime so they’re very hard to catch,” she said. “They’re very hardy, and they can get out of the water and slither a distance until they can get to another body of water. They can climb vertical walls, so they can climb dams when they’re very small. They can climb up wet rocks — so they’re intrepid.”




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