Fish Inequities

My brother and I were first introduced to the American eel at Leaches Pond at what is now Borderland State Park in the Town of Easton Massachusetts. It was about 1972, our dad brought us to the pond fishing. Shortly after setting out our lines we noticed an unattached bobber moving lazily around the lily pads. Being the curious sort that we were, we hauled up our lines and paddled the canoe over to the meandering bobber. Dad reached over, grabbed the bobber and began pulling. Several seconds later dad hauled a massive clump of weeds and a slithering, slimy three foot long American Eel over the side of the canoe. At that time neither my brother or I had any idea where that eel had come from or how it got there.

Today, 30 odd years later we do, and itís one of natures, and one of the worlds most remarkable stories of endurance, perseverance and will to survive. Leaches Pond is at the very top of the Taunton River Watershed.

First, consider the time line. Female American eels can live in freshwater for 50 years or more before returning to the ocean to spawn. Assume that our mother eel from Leaches Pond was fifty years old in 1972. That means she began her migration from the Sargasso Sea and entered the Taunton River sometime around 1922. To reach Leaches Pond she swam up the Taunton River to the Mill River in downtown Taunton. She climbed over three dams on the Mill River before reaching Sabattia Lake, several miles upstream. From Sabattia she moved into the Snake River and on to Winnecunnet Pond in Norton. She left Winnecunnet by way of Mulberry Meadow Brook. Heading upstream toward the Wheaton Farm Ponds she found herself in a maze of dikes and spillways, where Mulberry Brook had been turned into an extensive series of cranberry bogs. Once out of the bog maze she continued on through the Wheaton Farm Ponds up Mulberry Brook still further to the dam at New Pond in the Furnace Village section of Easton. Climbing over the New Pond dam, she swam up Poquanticut Brook and on to the top of the Taunton River watershed in Leaches Pond at the Easton-Sharon line. This is an amazing enough feat today in 2004, however in 1922  this animal's journey and the fact that she reached Leach Pond is truly miraculous.

In 1922, the Taunton and Mill Rivers were little more than flowing sewers, filled to the brim with untreated industrial and municipal waste. The Mill River would have been one of the foulest streams in the watershed. In 1922 it flowed through the industrial heart of the flourishing metals plating industry of the City of Taunton. Our mother eel found her way over six dams, through water that would peel paint, through bog mazes treated with some of the harshest pesticides ever used and into Leach Pond hundreds of miles from her birthplace in the Sargasso. Is there another animal in nature capable of making such a miraculous journey?



Fish Inequities

By Doug and Tim Watts

On March 10, 2004 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's American Eel Management Board recommended that the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) consider designating the entire coast wide stock of American Eel as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Our direct experience on two New England rivers, Cobbossee Contee Stream in central Maine and the Weweantic River in southeastern Massachusetts, provide insight on a principal cause of the precipitous decline in the American eel population of North America.

Cobbossee Contee Stream drains 217 square miles of central Maine and enters the Kennebec River at Gardiner, Maine, six miles below the Kennebec River's head of tide at Augusta, the state capital. The watershed of Cobbossee Contee is dominated by a number of large natural lakes, totalling 12,000 acres in surface area. These natural lakes create a very large amount of ideal habitat for American eel and undoubtedly have for millennia.

In 1979, the State of Maine permitted construction of a hydro-electric dam at an abandoned mill site on lower Cobbosee Contee Stream. The dam is called the American Tissue Dam. State and federal fisheries agencies in 1979 were offered the opportunity to require the dam owners to provide safe passage for American eel and other native fish at the dam. None expressed an interest in doing so and a federal license was given to the dam without any protection for the fish living in the stream.

When the American  Tissue Dam was put into operation in 1980, it began to kill large numbers of adult American eel. Eel fishermen who collected and photographed bushel baskets of chopped eels killed below the dam demanded action. State and federal environmental officials took no action to stop the killing. The killing has continued each fall for 20 years.

This same scene is repeated at hydro-electric dams on every river in New England and has been ever since these dams were built or converted to hydro-electric generation. These eels, predominately female, may be as old as 50 years. Older than every mammal in New England except for humans and yet we are slaughtering them year after year after year ... at the very moment they are trying to give birth.

Like Shylock, American eels bleed when pricked. Four foot long eels forced to migrate through a hydro-electric dam turbine are more than pricked. They are chopped into pieces or worse, deeply gouged and lacerated, but still alive, breathing on the stream bottom for weeks as the back half of their body rots and decays. Most of the female American eels in New England die this way.

Our recent experience at Cobbossee Contee Stream illustrates how difficult it is to stop this killing even when the hands and arms of State of Maine fisheries biologists are covered with the deep red blood of freshly dismembered female adult American eels.

Despite four consecutive years of meticulous documentation of these annual eel kills by ourselves and Matthew O'Donnell, Nate Gray, Skip Zinck and John Perry of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the annual killing of eels has still not been stopped on Cobbossee Contee Stream. Despite extensive media coverage, repeated requests by citizens, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Office of Attorney General has repeatedly refused to take any enforcement action to stop the annual killing of American eels at Cobbossee Contee. Instead, these agencies have said these severe, annual fish kills are allowed under Maine law.

The Weweantic

About now, March 17, 2004, swarms of baby American eels (glass eels) are swimming and drifting with the currents towards the coastal streams of the Atlantic coast. These glass eels were born several hundred miles away in the waters of the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. Their mothers, those dwindling few which have survived this coastwide carnage, some as old as fifty years, give birth only once in their life.

About two weeks from now, the babies born of these mother eels, these tiny transparent orphans, will begin entering our coastal rivers and streams. One such river is the Weweantic River. Weweantic enters Buzzards Bay in the Town of Wareham Massachusetts, and is the largest tributary of Buzzards Bay. Weweantic is about a fifteen minute ride from our front door and we spend a lot of time there.

This spring, thousands and thousands of these baby eels will meet an ugly fate at the base of a dam built more than one hundred years ago below the head of tide on the Weweantic, the Horseshoe Pond Dam.

The Horseshoe Pond Dam on the Weweantic River is abandoned, serves no purpose and is impassable to fish. It is falling down but has not fallen down. Unlike the hydro-electric dam on Cobbosse Contee, there are no spinning turbine blades on the Weweantic slicing American eels to ribbons. The carnage is not as graphic or heart wrenching at the Weweantic. At Weweantic you will find no severed heads, whose still living eyes look up at you from the stream bed, no gill plates on disembodied heads struggling in vain to supply oxygen to a rotting, mutilated body which hours before was sleek and beautiful -- brimming with life and a mother's desire to give birth to new life.

The carnage on the Weweantic is brought about by the simple fact that the baby eels cannot get past the dam. Each spring night, when the spring peepers are singing, the baby eels gather at the base of the dam and cloud the water in slithering, translucent masses. Like people rushing from a burning building they try to force themselves through tiny trickles dripping from cracks in the rotting concrete dam abutments. Very few of the baby eels ever make it past the dam.

Scenes like this play out each and every spring on hundreds of New England streams and at the bases of thousands of dams, as they have for two centuries. Like the carnage at Cobbosee Contee, the waste at Weweantic will continue until the day the dam finally wastes away.

 Carnage, disembodied heads, severed heads with living eyes, many who read this will think, well yes, itís probably true, these things have, do and will probably continue to happen. However, the message wonít carry. Because we view these animals, the eels and other fish as fish. We do not see or react to their death and suffering through the same lens as we view our furry and feathered friends. Itís a Fish Iniquity.

 "Away with the superficial and selfish philanthropy of men, who knows what admirable virtue of fishes may be below low-water-mark, bearing up against a hard destiny, not admired by that fellow-creature who alone can appreciate it! Who hears the fishes when they cry?"

Henry Thoreau wrote that more than a hundred years ago sitting at his cabin on Walden Pond pondering the meanderings of ants. Today in 2004 that question to us by Henry Thoreau remains unanswered. "Who hears the fishes when they cry?"

Well, who does?

In April, May and June of 2004 thousands of baby eels will be unnecessarily slaughtered at the base of the Horseshoe Pond Dam on Buzzards Bay in Wareham Massachusetts and throughout New England. In the fall of 2004 adult mother eels will be chopped to ribbons by the turbines of the American Tissue Dam on Cobbosee Contee Stream in Gardiner Maine, and throughout New England.

How would New England's environmental community react to this slaughter if these eels were bluebirds? If wind powered generators were built on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts or Merrymeeting Bay in Maine, and if every spring and fall the waters beneath them were littered with the severed heads and rotting bodies of terns, plovers, ospreys and sea gulls would the wind farms be tolerated? Would we hear the birds cry?

"Men may be highest, or so men say, but they cannot be complete without granting equal dignity to the unsurpassed uniqueness of other forms of life. One ought to be able to say: "Here is a life not mine. I am enriched." From the preface to the book "The Run" by John Hay, 1959.

Does the eel, alewife, shad or lamprey have equal status with us and our furry and feathered friends? Should they? If we, the conservation minded individuals and groups both private and regulatory cannot view these animals plight with compassion, if we do not speak out and act upon what is happening before our eyes, who will?

The ongoing carnage at Cobbossee Contee and Weweantic are not isolated incidents taking place in a distant wilderness. Cobbosse Contee flows into the Kennebec just downstream from Augusta Maine, the state's capital. It is centered among many of the state's various regulatory agencies, universities, and offices of numerous environmental groups.

The same can be said for Weweantic. The Horseshoe Pond Dam is only about a ten minute car ride away from the office of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program. It is only a half hour away from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, and about the same distance from the Manomet Center in Plymouth. The Horseshoe Pond Dam on Weweantic and American Tissue Dam on Cobbossee Contee sit in what many would consider the epicenter of environmental enlightenment, yet still, year after year after year the carnage goes on.

Is the American eels decline so precipitous that it needs protection under the ESA? We hope not, if so the writing could already be on the wall, and this magnificent animal's fate could already be sealed.

After all, the eels life cycle is unique, extreme female longevity, spawning only once far out in the ocean where the babies must undertake a long arduous migration through dangerous waters. It takes vast numbers of spawning adults and returning juveniles to maintain a viable population of these animals. What is the threshold number for these animals? Were the butchered mother eels pulled from Cobbossee Contee this year or last the ones which kept the species above the viability threshold? Were the tiny glass eels languishing below Horseshoe Pond Dam last spring essential for the species ability to recover? We humans, who know so little about the American eel except how to destroy them, may never know until it is too late for us, and the American eel.

Note on eel longevity; The oldest eel taken from the wild was 43 years old. The oldest in captivity was 85 years old. Average spawning age for a female is between ten and thirty years.

The Amazing Eel:  From U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 

I swiped it from their website, don't tell anyone.

Eel reproductive research confirms that eels can reverse metamorphosis

As temperatures cool and eels make their way downriver in their migration to spawn in the ocean, they undergo physical changes to prepare their bodies for spawning and for the transition from freshwater to the marine environment. One of these changes is gut degeneration as the eels cease feeding and rely on fat stores to make the lengthy journey back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die. According to recent European research, eels that are delayed, for example due to barriers or rises in temperature, and are unable to complete their downriver migration can actually reverse that physical change and regenerate their guts.

Citation: Estimation of the reproduction capacity of European eel, Final Report, 2005.















Note on Cobbossee Contee: To their credit the dams owner, Ridgewood Power has changed operators at the American Tissue Dam. The new operators have voluntarily taken measures to prevent further eel kills at their dams in 2004. At this time they appear to be working.

Ridgewood Power also owns a hydro dam on the Sebasticook River. This dam is the first dam upstream of the Benton Falls Dam. Ridgewood Power has on their own initiative, voluntarily shut down the turbines of their dam this fall to protect migrating eel and alewives.