December 25, 2004

American Eel May Get Federal Protection

HADLEY, Mass. (AP) -- It is one of the creepier creatures on Earth - a squirming, snakelike fish bound for no real glory beyond its role in sushi or as bait dangling from a fisherman's hook. But it is largely for that reason - not despite it - that Tim Watts is taking a stand to protect the American eel, a species he says is in dangerous decline.

"The eel is one of those species that seems to fall through the cracks because it isn't so pretty," Watts said. "They don't have a voice. They don't have anyone to speak for them."

For now, the eels have Watts, a graveyard-shift janitor from Middleboro.

Along with his brother Doug - who lives in Augusta, Maine - Watts has filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the American eel, the Western Hemisphere's only freshwater eel, protected as an endangered species.

The brothers grew up fishing Massachusetts rivers and streams, and for decades, Tim Watts pretty much took eels for granted. They were always easily available to catch and use as bait for striped bass. But a few years ago, he took his children fishing on the Weweantic River near his house and saw a gaggle of eels stuck at the bottom of a dam.

"For every one that gets over a dam, thousands aren't making it," Watts said. "And if they don't make it, they're not getting back to the Sargasso."

Eels spawn in just one place - the Sargasso Sea, an expanse of warm, algae-filled water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After hatching in those still waters east of Bermuda, they are carried by currents that deposit them at the mouths of rivers from South America to Greenland. They swim upstream into fresh water, making their way as far inland as Wisconsin.

When they mature, the eels swim back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and end their lives. The entire journey can take seven to 30 years.

The Watts brothers researched everything they could find about the American eel on the Internet, and drafted their petition, which reads as both a history of man's interaction with the fish ("Humans have watched, caught and eaten American eel living in the waters of the United States since the last Ice Age.") and as an urgent plea for its protection ("The American eel is now in danger of extinction throughout its range in the United States of America.")

What they have come up with is not so far off the mark, experts say.

According to a 2000 report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the amount of eel caught for bait dropped 76 percent between 1985 and 1995, to less than 50,000 pounds.

Most of the commercially caught American eels are sold to Asia, where they are predominantly used as sushi.

"It's definitely not a warm, fuzzy species that people might instantly get excited about," said Heather Bell, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist in Hadley. "But there is a big economic interest in eels because the Asian markets don't have enough Asian eel to support their demand."

Although Watts, Chase and Bell suspect dams are interfering with the American eel's travel plans, the question of why their numbers are dropping is one they say has not been fully answered.

By Feb. 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have reviewed the Watts brothers' petition to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation. If so, a nine-month study will be conducted so the agency can decide whether the American eel deserves protection.

In the meantime, Tim Watts said, "I don't eat them. I used to fish them and use them as bass bait, but I don't do that anymore. You have to ask yourself: Should I be concerned just about catching striped bass? Or should I be worrying about these other species living in the rivers?"


On the Net:

Tim and Doug Watts' web site: http://www.glooskapandthefrog.org

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region http://northeast.fws.gov