A Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee recently told me there were two-foot long fresh water American eels below our Monroe County cabin on Rocky Creek. I was stunned. I've strolled and waded in the creek for over twelve years and never seen one. The DNR employee and two co-workers were collecting native fish for the “Go Fish Georgia” aquarium in Perry, GA. They were particularly interested in Rocky Creek's eels as they caught over a dozen in 2000. They later told me they had only found one eel and it got away. I was secretly relieved. They believed the Georgia drought had something to do with their disappearance. The DNR folks said the eels live for decades in freshwater streams before they return to the Atlantic's Sargasso Sea to spawn. The Sargasso Sea is located between Bermuda and the Bahamas. Their reverse spawning migration is the opposite of the migrations of salmon, shad and striped bass. Adults die after spawning.
Anxious to learn more about eels I was thrilled to find an article called “The Mystery of Eels” in the September 2010 National Geographic. James Prosek, the author, said, “Scientists know where some of the 16 freshwater eel species and three subspecies spawn, but no one has ever reported seeing eel reproduction in the wild. Larval eels ride ocean currents to lagoons, estuaries, rivers and lakes. Many eels – almost exclusively females – move far inland. Years or even decades later adult eels return home by unknown routes to spawn and die.” Solving the eel-production mystery remains a holy grail for eel biologists. Prosek says the maturing eels usually swim back towards the ocean during two nights in September, around the dark time of the new moon. The run often corresponds with floods brought on by storms during hurricane season, when the sky is blackest and the rivers at its highest.
The migration of millions of eel spanning thousands of miles across the planet is one of the greatest unseen journeys of any creature around the globe. The eels are relentless in their effort to return to the ocean. They have even been known to cross land using each others moist bodies as a bridge.
Along the way they face hydroelectric dams, predation, pollution, disease and fishing by humans.
The females that do make it back to the sea will lay up to 30 million eggs.
The tiny transparent eel larvae with thin bodies, heads shaped like willow leaves and outward pointing teeth are carried via currents and winds along the coastal water of North America.
Although freshwater eels are ancient, evolving more than 50 million years ago, they are also disappearing. John Casselman, a biologist from Ontario, says the populations of American, European and Japanese eels are all declining, some precipitously. Eeling in the U.S. is now regulated. Maine is one of the few states allowing the export of glass eels to China.
Scientists from the Tokyo Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute have located six eel spawning grounds around the globe but, after 19 years, they have yet to see a spawning eel. I can relate to Prosek's feeling that one of the eels greatest beauties is that its very life beginnings remains a mystery.