Education Blog

The Journey of A Lifetime: The American Eel

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As I began to learn more about the American eel, (Anguilla rostrata), I was struck by the difference between my recent trip from Long Island to Key West and back, and the eel’s trip from the Sargasso Sea to Long Island and back. Although my trip happened in a short period of my life, and for the eel it’s a life journey, I can’t help but compare the two.

Both round trips are about 3,000 miles, give or take a few hundred miles. My trip was recreational; the eel’s is for reproduction and survival. The American eel’s journey, to and from, can take 4-40 years.  Mine was over in 6 short days.  My trip was easy. I was driven to the airport, sat comfortably in a piloted plane, was fed and watered, and enjoyed four days of sunny, warm, fun adventures.  The trip of the American eel is anything but easy, and much more fascinating than mine!

The eel’s life starts as an egg in the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic, between West Indies and the Azores. The larvae hatch at the surface of the ocean, begin to drift north with the Gulf Stream, and arrive at the Atlantic coast in about a year.

By the time the eel reaches the coast, it has developed into a juvenile, known as a glass eel, (pictured above). What a perfect name! Last spring, I discovered glass eels for the first time along the shoreline of Shinnecock Bay, near the Ponquoge Bridge. Just as their name describes, they are transparent and are about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long.  At the next stage of its life cycle, the eel develops a gray, green-brown pigmentation and grows to more than 4 inches. It’s now known as an elver.

The eel is believed to be mostly catadromous, meaning it is born in the ocean, matures in fresh water, and returns to the ocean to spawn. At the yellow eel stage, it moves into freshwater ponds, lakes and streams where it sexually matures into a silver eel. This can take 3-4O years! The complete sexual maturation (the eel is now 3-5 feet in length) happens on its swim back to the Sargasso Sea. Along the way, the eel stops eating and its gut degenerates, among other amazing physical changes. If it’s lucky to make it back to the Sargasso Sea, the female releases 20-30 million eggs for fertilization by a male. And the journey begins again.

As I write this in the safety of my home, the American eel is anything but safe. Overfishing, loss of habitat, introduced parasites and dams are a few of the challenges this amazing creature faces. It is now listed as a species of special concern in Canada, which gains the species protection against harvesting in certain areas. Some U.S. states, including Maine, have also imposed restrictions on eel harvesting.

I encourage you to wander along the shoreline of Shinnecock Bay in late spring and look for glass eels. It’s worth the trip!