Eel remains a mystery, except in its importance to ecosystem

James Prosek has spent much of his professional life writing about and painting pictures of glamour fish — the trout, the salmon — that are appealing to the eye and the palette.

Born the same week and year I graduated from college (sigh), Prosek has 10 fishing books to his credit (double sigh). Galleries have had shows featuring his fish paintings and he won a Peabody — broadcasting's equivalent of the Pulitzer — for his ESPN documentary on Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author and trout angler. He helped create the Yale Anglers Journal while a student at the university, a periodical I recommend to anyone who enjoys reading lyrical pieces about fish and fishing.

But instead of writing another pretty book about another pretty fish, Prosek has turned his artist's eye to eels. You know, creepy, slithery, evil-looking critters that Chesapeake Bay anglers use for bait with little thought about their origin.

Tough sell, right? As we talk on the phone, he laughs and concedes, "The eel is not an easy fish to like. People feel uneasy about eels and I think it's because they don't fit in any clear category. Is it a snake? Is it a fish? People want to pin everything down and they can't with the eel."

By taking us with him on a globe-trotting adventure that spanned more than a decade, Prosek explores how the eel has been part of history, religion and culture for centuries. He follows scientists on the Sargasso Sea, believed to be the spawning ground for all North American and European eels; watches Japanese merchants at Tsukiji, the world's largest seafood market; and listens to fisherman and folklorists in Micronesia.

"I love the fact that for all we know, this fish has been able to retain its mystery," Prosek said. "I'm not tired of eels, even after 11 years."

The eel admiration society also includes Rachel Carson, the Sun's outdoors writer in the 1930s (writing under the name R.L. Carson). In an Oct. 9, 1938 feature, Carson wrote: " ... the most remarkable of all Chesapeake Bay fishes is born in alien waters. Before it is half as long or as thick as a man's thumb, it makes a journey across 1,000 miles of strange, wild waters without benefit of chart or compass, finding the shores from which its parents came a year and a half before. In bays, rivers and streams, it feeds and grows for 10 years, perhaps 15 or 20. At last, obeying an instinct as old as the tribe of eels, it sets out on the return journey to the Sargasso to produce its young and itself to die. Thus the life cycle of the eel is completed."

Eels are catadromous, the only fish to spawn in the ocean but live their adult lives in freshwater rivers and streams. But man has done his damndest — literally — to break the life cycle by building blockages across waterways, a practice that has ended and, thankfully, is being reversed.

While in the 1890s, Maryland lawmakers tried to eradicate eels (and appropriated $3,400 for the job), state officials now are working with American Rivers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to remove dams and restore habitat. More than $1 million was spent to take out Union Dam on the Patapsco River and Simkins Dam will be gone by the end of the year, another job that will cost nearly $1 million.

Why such a fuss over American eels? Keith Whiteford, the eel man for the Department of Natural Resources, says the fish are important to Maryland economically — it is one of the state's most productive fisheries — and as part of the food chain.

"Ecologically eels are very important," he said. "They are a top-order predator in freshwater streams, which help regulate the population of other animals. They themselves are a significant source of food for fish, mammals, turtles and birds. They can be used as a bio-indicator for pollution since they are long lived — up to 15 years in Maryland — and often spend their time in the same system."

Prosek also points out the ecological importance of the American eel by contrasting two nearby watersheds: the Susquehanna River and the Delaware River. Surveys show the Delaware has about two million freshwater mussels living in each mile of the waterway that filter water and feed other critters. The Susquehanna, on the other hand, is a no man's land for mussels.

The difference is that while the Susquehanna has large hydro dams spanning its lower main stem, the Delaware has few blockages, making it a superhighway for migrating eels and the mussel larvae that hitchhike on their skins. As a result, Prosek notes, each day mussels are filtering two billion gallons of water per mile of the Delaware.

Despite all of his research — and the research of the scientists he profiles — the eel remains a shadowy character. We really don't know how they find their spawning ground and how the baby eels find their way here. We don't know whether we can stop the decline of the eel population or what will happen if we can't.

"There are these mysteries out there that we may never be able to solve," Prosek says just before we hang up. "Nature is that way. It keeps us guessing."

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