Eels on their way out?

I have definitely noticed a decline in eel populations in Lake St-Francis over the last 10 years or so. They used to be everywhere you would find a pile of rocks. I still remember the first time I drifted across the shallow top of the Crab off the shore of Nadeau’s Point. The shallow reef was littered with eels. I have come face to face with them on numerous occasions while snorkeling. They are pretty easy to approach seeing as most of the time their head is tucked away in the rocks looking for food. There are often a Smallmouth or two right behind them hoping to catch a fleeing crayfish. Turns out there may be a reason for their disappearance. The following article from the Ottawa Citizen attempts to shed light on what might be happening to this amazing fish that boasts one of the longest migratory routes of any animal on this planet.

Survey shows the once-plentiful fish have almost vanished from Eastern Ontario

Every fish scientist knew there are fewer eels in Eastern Ontario rivers now than in the legendary times when a fisherman could haul in 1,000 in a night.

The American eel is a tough fish, but hydro dams on rivers may be overpowering its need to migrate.
But to find none — not a single eel in six weeks of looking in the Rideau River and part of the Ottawa — was a shock.
These are big, tough fish. They live up to 40 years and can grow more than a metre long. They migrate all the way to the mid-Atlantic, to Bermuda and beyond, to spawn. What went wrong? Eels are a forgotten fish, though they are native here. They hide in muddy water and are active mainly at night.
“They’re amazing,” says Naomi Langlois, a fish and wildlife technician at the South Nation Conservation Authority. But they’re also scarcer than 20 years ago. Mainly the problem is dams. “The barriers on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers pose a problem.” It’s hard — but possible — for fish to climb upstream. Getting downstream to spawn is worse.
“That’s when they get slaughtered. They float back out with the current, and following the current often takes them right through the turbines of hydroelectric dams. They get chopped up.”
The Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall is an obstacle in the St. Lawrence. So is the Beauharnois Dam near Hawkesbury on the Ottawa. There are smaller dams too, including one on the South Nation.
So a variety of conservation authorities, including the Rideau Valley, Mississippi Valley and South Nation, did a survey of eels. They zapped a section of river with enough electricity to stun fish but not kill them, and counted what floated to the surface. They’re due to report to the Ministry of Natural Resources next week.
The findings are sobering: Langlois’s team surveyed the lower end of the South Nation watershed and found just three eels — two downstream from Casselman and one upstream. The Mississippi searchers found a few, too.
Aquatic biologist Jennifer Lamoureux doesn’t think the eels are gone completely. “We did talk to some anglers who have caught them in recent years,” she said. “Eels are really, really hard to catch.”
“I think it caught us a little by surprise,” Langlois said.
Ontario says up to 99 per cent may have gone since the 1970s. It banned commercial eel fishing in 2004.
All eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic near Bermuda. But for some reason the young ones divide by sex, and eels in Eastern Ontario and the Great Lakes are mostly females.
Lose those, and we lose a lot of the egg supply for the next generation.
“The big issue now is trying to find ways of making downstream passage (to bypass dams) so they can make it back out to the Sargasso Sea,” Langlois said.
The Rideau Valley authority is asking anyone who catches or even sees an American eel to call them at (613) 692-3571, ext. 1176, or to e-mail with details. A picture would also be helpful. And please, they add, let the fish go.

What do you think is going on with the eel?

3 Replies to “Eels on their way out?”

  1. They sell American Eels at the Chinese grocery store in Ottawa on Hunt Club Rd at Riverside Dr.
    I called MNR about it and they said these are caught in Quebec where it’s legal to catch them and are not protected as they are here in Ontario. The officer said the store had receipts to prove where they were bought from.

    So that’s one problem, they are being caught and sold before they even make it to Ontario waters.

    If anything, if they are protected here in Ontario it should not be allowed to sell them, not matter where they are caught.

  2. Good point. If they’re sold there you can bet they’re sold in a lot of other places. Makes you wonder where all the sushi shops in Toronto and Montreal get their eel. This looks like another case of Ontario and Quebec not working together in managing the same waters. There needs to be a better cooperation of ideologies between the two provinces when it comes to Great Lakes and St-Lawrence River fisheries management. That and if the eels are endangered they obviously should not be harvested and sold in restaurants until they have recovered.

  3. Hey Andre,

    The eels have been protected in Ontario since around 2004 I believe. They are still allowed to fish them commercially in Quebec but the Quebec government has bought out several eel licenses in the regions where they are fished in the last couple of years to try to control the practice. Commercial fishermen in our area are still catching eels for the purpose of a survey for Ontario Power Generation and the MNR. Numbers have definently gone down but if you think they are bad here they’re even worse above the dam because OPG’s eel ladder is out of date and the last I heard they were in the process of refurbishing it. Some other studies have shown that climate change and shifting ocean currents have affected them too but it’s really a combination of all these factors that’s really hammering them. See you out on the water.

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