An American eel’s incredible journey

09/30/2010 12:00 AM |

Peter Stoutenburgh Photo
This eel captured by a great blue heron is an unusual sight. Predators of eels are normally larger fish, gulls and eagles. This photograph was taken while birding with my son at Sills Dairy in Greenport in 1969.

Eels have been a mystery through the ages. Let’s see if we can erase some of that mystery.

American eels are slippery and slimy and hold little attraction for the average person. I’ve caught many eels on a hook when I was looking for anything but, because once on board an eel becomes a problem. You can’t hold onto it, for it will slip right through your hands, and because of the mess the eel makes of your line, you might as well cut it off and start anew.

However, eels are good eating and are excellent smoked. Commercially they are caught in eel pots. They are also speared at night by fire lighting since eels are nocturnal and are out and about at night. So let’s take a look into the life history of this long, narrow, bony, snake-like fish we find in our local waters.

It seems an impossible journey eels go through in their lifetime. The adults leave the freshwater stream or pond they have lived in for years and head out through the bays or Sound into the salt water of the ocean on their way to the Sargasso Sea to mate. American eels are one of the few fish that are catadromous, meaning they spend most of their lives in fresh water but return to the salt water of the sea to breed.

Once in the salt water, the adult eels from our East Coast head south to the Sargasso Sea to their spawning grounds. The Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda, is surrounded by ocean currents and is named for sargassum seaweed, a floating seaweed that provides a haven for a variety of sea creatures and juvenile fish. It is a “sea without shores,” bordered on the west by the Gulf Stream and on the north by the North Atlantic current. It is this current that helps the young eels on their journey back to the freshwater streams or ponds of their parents, where they grow into adults after having been born at sea.

It is believed that the male dies after reaching the Sargasso Sea and mating, and the female dies after laying some 17,000 eggs. Tiny larvae, called glass eels, hatch from the eggs and drift in the ocean currents. Glass eels are very thin, ribbon-like and transparent. It sometimes takes years following the currents before these tiny eel larvae reach the coast of the United States, where they enter the freshwater streams or ponds. Many are eaten by predators before they ever reach the fresh water.

During their long journey along the coast in the glass eel stage, some young eels can be found in our local area. Doug Hardy of Southold told us that he has found these glass eels under rocks along our shores. Because they are transparent they are not easy to spot, but he says if you look carefully you will be able to see their movement.

While camping at Hither Hills 20 years ago, our son’s family was able to find one and photograph it. To get some idea of size, our grandson was just 2 years old when he was photographed pointing at the small glass eel on a dark towel. This glass eel, along with others, was probably moving along the ocean shore searching for its destination of a freshwater stream. If the eel reached the stream, it would have spent up to three years there before it returned to the Sargasso Sea to mate. Some say eels can live in the fresh water for up to 10 years before they return.

When glass eels finally reach the coast and are ready to enter the fresh water, they metamorphose into a new body shape. These rounder, darker eels are called elvers and actually look like eels. Elvers are about three inches long when they enter the freshwater area. While birding at the headwaters of the Peconic River I observed these elvers, now looking like miniature eels, moving about in the fresh water.

Many years ago an elderly couple lived next door to us, and before they left for Florida each year to spend the winter they would put up jellied eels in jars and carry them with them. We have never tried jellied eels but we do enjoy a good plateful of eels fried and eaten like corn on the cob. My favorite way to enjoy an eel is when it first comes out of the smoker and is still warm.

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