by Sadie Beaton.
“Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey- all the silver eels, in fact, that the marsh contained. And as they passed through the surf and out to sea, so also they passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.” – Rachel Carson, 1941.
It was nearly dusk in the early autumn. One minute I was treading water in the small swimming hole across the road from my house, and the next my legs were bicycling in eels. Nothing but darting, slippery eels.
I was thirteen years old. I didn’t know where they had been or where they were headed. I just knew they’d filled a stream of the East River Saint Mary’s. And that I’d been part of something magical.
Also, I think I screamed a little.
Turns out eels descend in droves from streams and rivers all over the Atlantic Coast every fall, mostly after dark. Unlike most other migratory fish, they are “catadromous,” meaning that they are born and die in the ocean, but live most of their life in fresh water. After many journeys, the enigmatic fish darting past
my legs were headed back to their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea, a two million square-mile spinning gyre near the Bermuda Triangle.
Incredibly, over 2000 years of scientific study have failed to reveal the eel’s spawning secrets. Why the Sargasso? Exactly where do they reunite? At what depth? Do European and American eels fraternize? Until the 1920s we didn’t even know they were born in the ocean. Aristotle, perhaps the first biographer of eels, supposed that they grew out of earthworm poop.
While their conception is shrouded in mystery, dead silver eels are found in the Sargasso, while their leaf-shaped larvae drift away along the gyre’s strong counter-clockwise currents. From here, they ride the Gulf Stream towards the Atlantic coasts of South and North America and Europe – a trip that can take up to three years.
By the time they reach land, the larvae have morphed into five centimetre long “glass eels“, translucent but for their eyes. Once they hit fresh water, they begin to darken up and mature into “elvers“, only to change form again, growing over a metre long, turning yellow. These “golden eels” rove throughout Nova Scotia’s rich watersheds in the dark of night to feed on insects, worms, mollusks, crustaceans and fish for anywhere from five to 30 years.
Shifting shape once last time, eels turn a thick blackish-bronze. Sexually maturing into “silver eels,” they then leave their river homes to follow a mysterious call back to the Sargasso Sea. From here it is a grueling trip home, mostly under the cover of darkness, with everything from hydroelectric dams and fishing weirs – to tweens treading water – to thwart their progress.
Ever stubborn, eels have been known to spend weeks, even months, trying to figure out a way around a particular boundary. Amazingly, their slippery skin even allows them to shimmy overland for short distances. Anything to get back to the ocean.
The Mi’kmaq have long revered the eel’s tenacity and mystery. Until recently, they were a reliable food and medicine staple that helped sustain Mi’ kmaq families through the long Maritime winters. Also called Ka’t, eels are spiritually important too, appearing in many legends and as ceremonial offerings. Eels continue to help maintain and strengthen community bonds through traditional food-sharing networks that ensure eel fishers distribute their catch within and beyond their extended families.
The Mi’kmaq eel fishery garnered national attention in 1993 when Donald Marshall Jr. was charged for selling eels he caught in Pomquet Bay without a license. His deliberate action ultimately led the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 to confirm the Mi’kmaq treaty right to a moderate livelihood fishery.
One of few eel facts we can grab onto, unfortunately, is that they are declining at alarming rates, not only in Nova Scotia, but around the world. Since the mid 1980s there has been a spectacular drop in the numbers of glass eels found migrating to the north Atlantic, and a corresponding decline in silvers making their way back to the sea. The Committee On The Status Of Endangered Wildlife In Canada (COSEWIC) has now declared the American Eel a species of Special Concern. Along with commercial fishing, dams, invasive species, habitat loss, water quality degradation and climate change are all likely culprits.
Until recently, most non-aboriginal Nova Scotians have been disinterested in eels, which protected the species from intensive commercial fishing, and allowed Mi’kmaq to sustain their cultural connections to Ka’t. By the late 1800s, a small-scale eel fishery had developed, While much of the catch was for personal or community use, some eels were also peddled locally.
However, as eel populations have declined in other parts of the world, there has been increased demand for glass eels and elvers to stock a thriving Asian aquaculture industry. Despite widespread opposition from Mi’kmaq communities, DFO announced an “experimental” fishery for elvers in 1994.
Prices have shot up explosively for these baby eels. They sell for as much as $1 a piece – a serious windfall when you consider that it takes about 2600 of them to make up even one pound. The fishery is worth around $24 million and there are only nine license-holders in Nova Scotia, which is not likely to increase anytime soon – but when the profit is that high, poaching is always a concern.
Elusive, tenacious, and funny looking, eels are my favourite watery creature. I guess I feel like we shared a little moment so many years ago, in the backwaters of Guysborough County. But I also feel like they hold important secrets.
Even though eels spend time moving through more habitats than any other fish, we know precious little about them. Eels’ lives serve as a potent reminder of the connectedness, fragility and ultimately, mystery of the underwater realm. Their complex, migratory life cycle makes eels particularly vulnerable to environmental changes. It also makes protecting eels – and our relationship with them – a real challenge.
Perhaps we could all learn from the Mi’kmaq concept of ecosystem stewardship, known as Netukulimk. Encompassing a deep respect for interconnections- along with a cultural responsibility to protect them, Netukulimk is often taught through respect and reverence for eels as a source of life. Certainly not as a source of quick, easy cash.
World Fish Migration Day is today, May 24, 2014, and aims to connect fish, rivers and people. Sadie Beaton is part of the Ecology Action Centre’s Marine Team. She cannot reveal the words of the golden eel.