For centuries, the American eel dominated the waters of parts of the Great Lakes. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass of Lake Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. Researchers and fishermen see the decline as a shrill warning about changes in climate and the environment. And they say now is the time to do something about it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
For centuries, the American eel dominated the waters of parts of the Great Lakes. Only
fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass of Lake Ontario.
Today, it has all but disappeared. Researchers and fishermen see the decline as a shrill
warning about changes in climate and the environment. And they say now is the time to
do something about it. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Before you say, who cares about a slimy critter like an eel, hear me out. Eels are
They spawn in the Sargasso Sea – the Bermuda Triangle. But no one’s ever caught them
in the act.
“There is a mystery that we haven’t solved. We have never seen them spawn.”
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 rivers and streams from Florida to
“The eel is a fish that we should be looking at very closely.”
They live up to 20 years in freshwater before they start the long journey to the Sargasso
The problem is their offspring are not coming back.
“A very important native species of the Great Lakes, that we’re at serious risk of losing.”
As you can hear, a lot of people are worried about the eel, and not just in the Great Lakes.
European eel young are down 99% from the 1970’s. The Japanese eel is down 80%. In
Lake Ontario, the fish is all but gone. And the people who rely on it feel like they’re
(sound up 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 thirty 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 was in there would be eels at certain times and there was literally tons of them on
that south shore. Now you could go back and you’ll find nothing.”
He stopped fishing eels three years ago because it just wasn’t worth it.
“That eel is telling man we better smarten up because this is happening all over the
Now Rorabeck 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 the Glenora Fisheries Station, run by the Ontario Ministry of
Natural Resources. In 1980, at a point on the St. Lawrence River in mid-summer, he
counted more than 25,000 eels a day. Last year, there were scarcely 20 a day.
Casselman ticks off a host of possible causes – overfishing, dammed-up rivers, erosion,
pollution, invasive species, and perhaps most troubling, a climactic change of cooling
“There is an interrelationship between what’s going on in the ocean and the recruitment of
And he says we’re mostly to blame. The problem is, Casselman and other researchers
don’t know exactly how all the factors relate or which is worse. And they say there’s no
time to find out. Last summer eel experts from 18 countries made an unusual statement.
In what’s now called the Quebec Declaration of Concern, they urged more action, not
“I’m a research scientist and of course, I love data. At this stage, 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.”
The Great Lakes Fishery Commission has issued an emergency declaration of its own. It
represents commercial fishermen and anglers in the region. Spokesman Mark Gaden
says it’s calling on the U.S. and Canada to do everything they can to reduce eel deaths in
the Great Lakes.
“We’re committing ourselves, our resources to working to make the recovery of the
species a reality.”
Last month, the province of Ontario halted commercial eel fishing for the foreseeable
(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 to Lake Ontario for
“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 Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.