Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Make Way For The Eels
January 16, 2007

Release from: Karen Gardner
Frederick News-Post (Maryland)

FREDERICK - Eels were once plentiful in the Potomac River. Two federal agencies are now working to rebuild the eel population in its natural habitat.

The latest effort to bring back the snake-like fish calls for passageways through Dams 4 and 5, located near Williamsport. This would help revive the population both upstream and downstream. The C&O Canal National Historical Park has planned a public hearing Wednesday so people can learn about the plan.

Alex Hoar, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Mass., has been working to restore the eel population to the Potomac. "We think the Potomac could be the first river on the East Coast opened for eels in accordance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's goals for eels," Mr. Hoar said in a telephone interview.

Eels historically made up 25 percent of the fish population of East Coast waterways. Mr. Hoar and other federal officials would like to help restore some of that population. "Only 10 percent of their historic range is unobstructed," Mr. Hoar said.

He has been the motivator for a public-private partnership to rebuild the eel population along the Shenandoah River in Virginia and West Virginia, which flows into the Potomac just upstream of Brunswick.

Allegheny Energy, the company that provides electricity to most homes and businesses in Frederick County and other parts of Western Maryland, worked with Mr. Hoar to build an eel passageway up the Millville dam on the Shenandoah in West Virginia a couple of years ago.

"The first day it was open they went up it like it was nobody's business," Mr. Hoar said. Since then Allegheny Energy has helped the Fish and Wildlife Service build five successful eelways.

"They (Allegheny Energy) were so tickled with the success of what we did, they've possessed this as their own," he said.

Protecting history

The Potomac dams are a little different, however. Lynne Wigfield, compliance officer with the C&O Canal Park, said Dams 4 and 5 are historic masonry structures, and the eelways must not change the look of the dams. "We've got these historic vistas," she said.

The FWS is designing eelways that would be placed on one side of the dams, according to Pam Rooney, a project manager for the FWS. The eelways resemble sliding boards that sit just above the water. They are kept wet, and at the top of the dam the fish are piped into a collection basin that prevents them from being swept back over the dam, she said.

If the eelways are approved, she said, the FWS will work with the Departments of Natural Resources in Maryland and West Virginia to ensure the fish are counted and released from the collection basin. Those agencies are eager to take part in the project, she said. "They'd like to see the habitat restored," she said.

Eels will swim out of the water and onto land to get around a dam, but it's not always a safe or easy passage. "We want eels to move upstream in an efficient manner so they don't have to creep around at night," Mr. Hoar said. Eels resemble snakes but don't bite and are not dangerous.

The Potomac and its tributaries are ideal for eel restoration, because there are few dams and few property owners, he said. In other areas, eels battle deadly turbine-powered hydro-electric dams.

Eels contribute to the overall health of an estuary because they were part of the original food chain, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Eels were once found in rivers in the east coasts of North America, Central America and northern South America.

Experts know eels are prey in salt water, but aren't sure whether birds or other marine life eat eels in their freshwater or brackish habitats.

Eels never entirely disappeared from the Potomac River. Even the huge Great Falls near Washington has never obstructed the movement of eels upriver because it provides eels lots of crevices and ledges on which to rest when moving upstream.

Life cycle

Eels live pretty long lives. All eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, a part of the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda. Female and male eels, which have lived most of their lives in freshwater estuaries of the Americas and Europe, die after they spawn. The baby eels start their journeys in the Sargasso, and drift wherever the currents take them. "It is a random event," Mr. Hoar said.

"Some drift up to the mouth of the Chesapeake and become bait for striped bass," Mr. Hoar said. "Every life stage of the eel is harvested." Eels will eat crayfish and insects.

"We get an upstream migration pattern we don't understand very well," Mr. Hoar said. Eels travel alone, not in schools.

Eels will remain in estuaries, rivers or lakes for up to 20 years. They become dormant when the water temperature drops below 55 degrees. When they mature they begin their long downstream journey to the Sargasso Sea.

"They move downstream opportunistically," Mr. Hoar said. "They swim like a snake. They are not big jumpers like salmon. They seek out slow moving water and move by swimming along the bottom or sides of the river."

Eels travel downstream on moonless nights with good water flow. They will winter over when the water gets cold and start again in the spring.

Once at sea, if the eels make it past the Beluga whales, which like to eat them, they aim for the Sargasso Sea, where they will mate, lay eggs and die.

"It's a hard creature to warm up to, but it's a fascinating creature," said Mr. Hoar, who helped bring eels to the attention of the Marine Fisheries Commission. Eels can climb at a 45-degree angle, which is why building fishways for their passage works, he said.

"This project is about a natural collection of fish that are supposed to be there," he said. Eels are sometimes caught and eaten, but if they eat contaminated insects, they may become contaminated. Because they live in slow moving water, contaminants can remain in their bodies for years.

But the presence of eels would help the Potomac return to its natural state, he said. If everything goes well, the eelways would be functioning in two years. "We would have something to celebrate," Mr. Hoar said. "The Potomac would be the first river to implement the goals and objectives of the ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission). It will become a model."