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.
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 email@example.com 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?