Saving the American Eel

Biologists in Canada are taking extreme measures to prevent
the disappearance of a mysterious fish. For the first time ever, they’ve stocked one of the Great Lakes with American eels. David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

Biologists in Canada are taking extreme measures to prevent the disappearance of a mysterious fish. For the first time ever, they’ve stocked one of the Great Lakes with American eels. David Sommerstein reports:


Eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea. They swim thousands of miles up the Atlantic Coast, up the St. Lawrence River, and into Lake Ontario.


Once the most populous fish in the lake, eel numbers have been plummeting since the 1980s. In a desperate move, the province of Ontario captured 144,000 baby eels from the Atlantic, nursed them, and then released them into Lake Ontario to see if they’ll live.


“It’s a grand experiment. What we need to do urgently is get eels back into the system.”


Rob McGregor is with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. He says Lake Ontario eels are among the biggest and most productive of the species in North America.


“Losing them is a big concern.”


McGregor says it’ll take a decade or more before he knows if the eels reproduce and the experiment can be declared a success.


For The Environment Report, I’m David Sommerstein.

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Ten Threats: The American Eel

  • Researchers measuring an American Eel. (Courtesy of United States Department of Agriculture)

Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:

Transcript

In our next report in the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes we hear about native
species that are in trouble. Our guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says some fish
and organisms are disappearing.


Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:


Before you say, who cares about a slimy critter like an eel, eels are amazing. They spawn
in the Sargasso Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, but no one’s ever caught them in the act.


After they’re born, they’re like tiny glassy leaves. They float thousands of miles north
and west on ocean currents. Then, they wiggle up the St. Lawrence River and into the
Great Lakes. They live up to 20 years in fresh water before they start the long journey to
the Sargasso to spawn.


The problem is their offspring are not coming back. People are worried about the eel, and
those who relied on it for a living feel like they’re disappearing too.


(Sound of waves)


Just ask fisherman John Rorabeck. He grew up here by the lighthouse on Point Traverse,
a peninsula that juts out into northeastern Lake Ontario.


Rorabeck’s been fishing these waters for more than 30 years. Eels were his prime catch.
He points past the lighthouse.


“I remember when I started fishing there were nights on that south shore, the most fish
that would be eels at certain times and there was literally tons of them on that south
shore. Now, you could go back there and you’ll find nothing.”


Rorabeck stopped fishing eels several years ago because it just wasn’t worth it. Now he
dedicates his fishing time to science. He catches specimens for leading eel expert John
Casselman, who examines them in his lab.


“It is truly a crisis. A crisis of concern.”


Casselman’s a scientist at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1980, at a point on
the St. Lawrence River in mid-summer, he counted more than 25,000 eels a day. Now
there are as few as 20 a day.


Casselman ticks off a list of causes. It sounds like a who’s who of environmental threats
to the Great Lakes – over fishing, dammed up rivers, erosion, pollution, invasive species,
climate change. If scientists could sift out how all the factors relate, they could take a big
step in better understanding the Great Lakes delicate ecosystem.


The problem is, Casselman says, there’s no time to wait. In 2003, eel experts from 18
countries made an unusual statement. In what they called the Quebec Declaration of
Concern, they urged more action, not more science.


“I’m a research scientist, and of course I love data. At this point, you don’t want me.
Don’t ask me to explain what’s going on here because by the time I get it figured out, it
may be too late.”


People are starting to do something about it, Casselman says. Several U.S. agencies are
considering giving the eel “rare and endangered” status. More money is going toward
research for fish ladders over dams.


Marc Gaden is spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.


“We’re committing ourselves, our resources to working to make the recovery of the
species a reality.”


The province of Ontario has closed the eel fishery in its waters for the foreseeable future.


(Sound up at beach)


Fisherman John Rorabeck supports that plan. He stares out across the waters he’s
trawled for decades. He says he’s behind anything to bring the eel back for future
generations.


“And hopefully we can, but I don’t expect to see it in my time. When I…[crying]…when I
think of all the times that we’ve had out in the lake and my forefathers and see what’s
happening here, it breaks you down.”


Rorabeck says when he thinks of the eel nearing extinction, he feels like he and his way
of life are becoming extinct too.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

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Fishing Relics Fading Away

Fishing boats that once braved Lake Superior storms now sit idle and deteriorating on the shore of a small village. Some of the local folks believe the remnants of the village’s fishing past should be preserved. Others wonder if some relics of our past should simply be allowed to slowly fade away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has more:

Transcript

Fishing boats that once braved Lake Superior storms now sit idle and
deteriorating on the shore of a small village. Some of the local folks
believe the remnants of the village’s fishing past should be preserved.
Others wonder if some relics of our past shouldn’t simply be allowed to
slowly fade away? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson
has more:


(soft sounds of waves)


This quiet, sandy beach in Wisconsin’s northernmost village of Cornucopia is
left with a few hints of its past. Three gray wooden fishing boats sit in
disrepair on the sand dunes…boats that were part of this harbor’s fleet of
25 vessels when the Lake Superior fishing industry was at its peak. These
days, the cool mornings are disturbed only by a town meeting of seagulls…


(seagulls)


They’re waiting for the lone fishing boat to return for a late
breakfast.


(fishing boat engine)


The 44-foot steel hulled Courtney Sue is the last of the fishing boats in
Cornucopia. Brothers Mark and Cliff Halverson continue a family
tradition…bringing in the day’s catch.


“How was the catch?”


“Good enough for what we needed today.”


(sound of boxes sliding onto dock)


“These are lawyers, this is a trout, and the rest are whitefish. Been kind of slow
this year. Gonna pick up, but the water’s real cold yet. The fish are still out deep.”


(sound of sharpening knives)


With sharpened knives, the Halversons gut the fish so fast that the catch
continue to flop about even after filleting.


(sound of slitting fish)


“Been doing it for quite a few years. (slop, slop) Takes awhile
to get used to handling ’em (slop).”


These men are the last of their kind in town. The rest of the fishermen who
sailed on boats like the three beached relics have either left Cornucopia,
retired or died.


Fishing peaked in 1955. Then, it became a casualty of over-fishing and the
invasion of the sea lamprey…a life-sucking eel with no natural enemy in the Great
Lakes. It devastated the fishing.


(fishermen playing cribbage)


Most days you can find 64-year-old “Snooks” Johnson and 74-year-old Harold
Ehlers among a friendly game of cribbage at Corny’s Village Inn.


“Sorry, Harold.”


“Well, you’re gonna get better, I know.”


“Well, I can’t get any worse (laughs).”


Ehler’s family has owned the town general store since 1915. He remembers
the men and women who made fishing their livelihood from the 1920’s till
the 50’s.


“I have to say they were very independent people. They just depended on their skill to make a living.”


Harold Ehler’s store played a critical role…making sure fish got to the
market fresh, and for good prices.


“So their market was mainly in Chicago… my dad spent most of his noon hour
on the phone, which wasn’t that great in those days. Selling the fish. Then we’d go down and tag ’em, put them on a truck and take them to the railroad station in Ashland and so they’d get there the next morning.”


(sound of waves)


The old wooden boats now weathering on the beach are just about all that’s
left of that heritage. Battered letters spell out “The Eagle,” “Ruby,” and
“Twin Sisters.” Some people in Cornucopia hope to save the old boats from
the ravages of Lake Superior. “Snooks” Johnson’s family operated “Twin
Sisters”…and he joined the crew as a teenager in 1955…the last good year.


“Yeah it looks kinda sad, doesn’t it? How it got its name, my Dad’s brother had
twin daughters so that’s what the “Twin Sisters” came from. It was a pretty good boat.”


Johnson says these homemade wooden boats were plenty seaworthy…with lots
of room for fish and a crew of four or five.
“But they all rolled and I’d always get seasick when I was on the thing. Because
when it was rough weather and you took the fish in and piled them up on the
bow so they wouldn’t roll too much, because the bow would keep them confined.
And you had a stove that burned coal just for heat. Someone would start cookin’.
So you would have the engine smells, the coal smells and the half-cooked fish
smells. I spent quite a bit of my time sticking my head out that gangway right
there to chum the fish.”


Johnson says remembers Tom Jones, the builder of these boats. The oldest
dates back to 1927. The others were built in 1935 and 1940.


“What he would do is make half a boat, a model. He’d say well
this is the way you guys want it or whoever one like this, or one like
that. They’d agree on it and that’s how it would turn out. I think he had
about a third or fourth grade education, but he was brilliant. Nobody really
knows how to work on them anymore.”


When Tom Jones passed away, so did the know-how of restoring these boats.
Now, protected only by a rope to keep people from climbing onboard, these
remnants of a more prosperous day slowly decay.


A “Save the Boats” committee was formed, but recently dissolved. This
village of 50 people just doesn’t have enough resources, says the former
co-chair of “Save the Boats,” Phyllis Johnson. She hopes somebody someday
does something for the boats…


“It’ll be as a result of someone saying, “Hey, those boats are lookin’ pretty shabby, aren’t you gonna get the young people around, have them work on them or something.”


But nothing has happened yet. Not even so much as a coat of paint protects
the boats. The sterns and hulls are cracked open. Only one boat has a
propeller. Johnson would like to do something, but she’s realistic.


“In the end they’re going to go back to nature. They’re not going to float again, never. But as a part of heritage, it’s probably better to keep them in as good as shape as we can keep them as long as we can.”


Snooks Johnson says as each season takes its toll on the old boats, it’s
likely preservation isn’t in the cards.


“I don’t know, I kind of like to see it just the way it is.
fishing went to hell, and so do the boats. So they’re kind of following
suit and they’ll still last a long time I guess. I don’t know, a lot of
memories.”


But there are fewer and fewer people to share those memories remaining in
Cornucopia. And fewer people to worry about the fate of the old fishing
boats.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.


(sound of seagulls)

Commercial Lamprey Harvest May Soon End

A program to control the invasion of exotic species has got the lamprey eel under control throughout the Great Lakes…everywhere except the St. Mary’s River. But now, the lamprey are the target of a new time-release chemical that should reduce the lamprey population by 85-percent. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports, bringing the species under control will mean the end to a recent money-making experiment: