Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Eels Next On Endangered List?
March 24, 2005

Release from:
John Cramer
Roanoke Times (Virginia)

BLACKSBURG - Paul Angermeier isn't drawn by the looks of the American eel, an ugly, snakelike fish that dwells in the watery darkness.

It's the creature's many mysteries that keep him coming back.

"They're very slimy -- people who don't like snakes won't like eels -- but they're a pretty amazing animal," said Angermeier, a fish ecologist who hosted a two-day workshop on the American eel this week at Virginia Tech.

Scientists are looking for answers into the significant population decline of the American eel, which is being considered for inclusion on the endangered species list. Overfishing, loss of habitat, pollution and dams that block migratory streams are some of the suspected reasons.

The American eel's decline could have big implications for Virginia, where they are an important part of the state's multimillion-dollar fishing industry. Eels, whose range in Virginia extends from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains, are harvested for bait and as exports for Asia and Europe, where they are considered a delicacy.

The eels also are an important link in Virginia's ecological food chain -- they eat fish, crabs, worms and other creatures and in turn are eaten by other fish, ospreys, owls and other wildlife. In their various life stages, eels also fill a rare ecological niche -- the transfer of nutrients back and forth between deep saltwater and far inland freshwaters.

Little is known about the biology and behavior of American eels in mountain streams, where they have become increasingly rare, or how to best manage watersheds to restore eel habitats, said Andy Dolloff, a fish ecologist at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Forest Service.

Angermeier said he hoped the workshop would lead to a better understanding of eels and possible solutions to reverse their decline.

"Compared to other fish species, there are a lot of unanswered questions," said Angermeier, who works at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In one of the world's most arduous and least understood wildlife migrations, each spring millions of young American eels leave their birthplace in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean and swim inland into rivers, lakes and other freshwater ecosystems from South America to Greenland. In the United States, they migrate as far inland as South Dakota. Over 30 years, they grow from tiny, translucent creatures into 4-foot-long fish before they migrate back to the ocean to spawn and die.

American eels have one of the largest ranges, most diverse habitats and unusual life stages of any creature in the world, making them difficult to study. They once were considered to have a virtually limitless population, Dolloff said.

"It was inconceivable to a lot of people" that their population would ever seriously decline, he said.

For the past several years, Virginia Tech scientists and students and Forest Service scientists have studied eels in the mountain streams, lakes and rivers of Southwest Virginia. The eels used to inhabit the basins of the Roanoke, New and James rivers, but today they live only in the James River basin.

Researchers use electric shocks in the streams to stun the eels, then net them and implant radio transmitters. The eels are then tracked to better understand their movements.