Eels in the Susquehanna

Eel Fisherman

My first encounter with a live eel came when I was in high school. My friend’s father would often take us to the Laxawaxen River in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains to fish for trout. We fished downstream from Lake Wallenpaupack where the river continued east, joining the Delaware at Lackawaxen near Narrowsburg.

One afternoon I was drifting a hellgramite through a small pool when I hooked something I thought was a huge rainbow. It wasn’t. What I eventually reeled in was an eel, about two feet long, writhing, twisting, thrashing, and doing just about everything an eel could do to escape. It needn’t have worried. I wasn’t about to touch the slimy critter. Instead, I simply clipped the leader just above the hook and set it free.

The Laxawaxen is a tributary of the Deleware and as such has eventual access to the sea. This means eels are free to swim the whole length of the river unimpeded by any dams. Last October, I was reminded of my first eel encounter when I read an article written by Karl Blankenship, founding editor of the Bay Journal, which publishes independent, environmental news for the Chesapeake region.

Blakenship recounted how a decade ago, a team of biologists pulled into a boat ramp on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River with a tank filled with hundreds of eels, ranging in size from large earthworms to small snakes. The biologists were attempting to reintroduce eels to the Susquehanna which begins in Cooperstown and is the East Coast’s largest river.

Eels were an important food source for Native Americans as well as for early settlers, and at one time constituted about 25 percent of the river’s biomass but, as a result of the massive dams built in early 1900’s on the lower river, eel migration came to a halt and they all but disappeared throughout the upstream section.

Just about everyone knows about the efforts to restore a shad migration to the Susquehanna and, despite spending tens of millions of dollars, those efforts have largely been disappointing. Hardly anyone cared about restarting an eel migration until Steve Minkkien and a team of biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began their work a decade ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with fisheries agencies from Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland have stepped up eel restoration efforts.

Since 2005, more than 1.5 million young eels have been captured at the Conowingo Dam south of Harrisburg and trucked upriver for release. The Conowingo Dam, located just 10 miles upstream from the Susquehanna River’s confluence with the Chesapeake Bay, along with other dams on the lower Susquehanna, has blocked eel migration for nearly a century, causing them to vanish from the Bay’s largest tributary.

Minkkien and his team received permission from the Exelon Corp which owns the Conowingo Dam to trap eels that were gathering in significant numbers below the impoundment. The small eels, called elvers, were collected then trucked and released into the river above the dam but, this effort was only part of the solution to the restoration effort.

To reproduce, eels have to leave the river and swim more than 1,500 miles to an area in the southern North Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico known as the Sargasso Sea but, leaving the river isn’t easy for an adult eel. As adults, they have to navigate the turbines on the dams they encounter and this can cut them to pieces.

Some may ask, why restore eels to the Susquehanna watershed?  According to Minkkien, eels play an important part in the life cycle of freshwater mussels. Mussel larvae attach themselves to fish and are parasitic for a time before dropping off to grow on their own. Mussels are filter feeders and a large, healthy mussel population can filter tons of sediment out of the water every day. Nitrogen is a major polluter of the Chesapeake Bay and it’s estimated in large enough numbers, a population of mussels can remove up to 8 percent of the nitrogen load in the river every year.

Let’s hope this restoration attempt is successful. In addition to the ecological benefits eels can provide, since my first encounter, I’ve found eels either smoked or on Sushi to be delicious.

Categories: New York – Mike Raykovicz

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