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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.