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Researchers Warn of Declining American Eel Population - 2004-08-04

The American Eel is a snake-like fish that's prized as a delicacy, especially in Europe and Japan. Over the past 30 years, eel populations along the Atlantic Seaboard and in the Great Lakes have plummeted. Researchers and fishermen see the decline as a shrill environmental warning. And they say now is the time to do something about it.

Before you say, who cares about a slimy critter like an eel, eels are amazing. Eel expert John Casselman says they spawn in the Sargasso Sea, the Bermuda Triangle deep beneath the surface.

"There is a mystery that we've never solved," he says. "We have never seen them spawn."

After they're born, they're like tiny glassy leaves. They float thousands of kilometers north and west on ocean currents. Then they wiggle up rivers and streams from Florida to Quebec. They live up to 20 years in fresh water before they start the long journey to the Sargasso to spawn.

The problem is their offspring are not coming back.

"My sense is that it's massive declines," says Lydia Munger, a U.S. fisheries manager.

People are worried about the eel and not just in North America. European eel young are down 99 percent from the 1970s. The Japanese eel is down 80 percent. In Lake Ontario, where the eel once represented half the weight of all the fish there, it's all but gone.

Just ask commercial fisherman John Rorabeck. He grew up by the lighthouse on Point Traverse, a peninsula that juts out into northeastern Lake Ontario.

Rorabeck's been fishing these waters for more than 30 years. Eels were his prime catch. He points past the lighthouse.

"I remember when I started fishing there were nights on that south shore, the most fish that would be eels at certain times. Now you could go back and you'll find nothing," he says.

He stopped fishing eels three years ago because it just wasn't worth it.

"That eel is telling man that we better smarten up because this is happening all over the world," he adds.

Now Rorabeck dedicates his fishing time to science. He catches specimens for leading eel expert John Casselman, who examines them in his lab.

"It is truly a crisis. A crisis of concern," says Mr. Casselman.

Casselman's a scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. In 1980, at a point on the St. Lawrence River in mid-summer, he counted more than 25,000 eels a day. Last year there were scarcely 20.

Casselman ticks off a host of possible causes such as overfishing, dammed up rivers, erosion, pollution, invasive species, changing ocean currents. But because the eel's life cycle spans thousands of kilometers and dozens of habitats, researchers don't know exactly how all the factors relate.

And they say there's no time to find out. Last summer eel experts from 18 countries made an unusual statement. In what's now called the Quebec Declaration of Concern, Casselman says they urged more action, not more science.

"I'm a research scientist and I love data. At this point, you don't want me. Don't ask me to explain what's going on here because by the time I do, it may be too late," says Mr. Casselman.

The scientists say the first step is to reduce commercial eel fishing, and in some places, stop it altogether. They also recommend building more fish ladders over dams, reducing water pollution, and getting agencies throughout the eel's range to collaborate more. Lydia Munger of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission says solutions are just starting to take shape.

"You know, I think it's just coming to light now that this population is really in trouble and that there are things we should be doing about it," she says.

Munger's agency is asking the U.S. government to list the American Eel as an endangered species in the Great Lakes, which would halt eel fishing there.

Fisherman John Rorabeck stares out across the waters he's trawled for decades. He says he's behind anything to bring the eel back to Lake Ontario.

"And hopefully we can, but I don't expect to see it in my time," he says. "When?when I think of all the times that we've had out in the lake and my forefathers and see what's happening here, it breaks you down."

Rorabeck says when he thinks of the eel disappearing, he feels like he and his way of life are disappearing too.