| Aug 20, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'Lakes - August 20, 2009 The American Eelby Lorraine Julien

The idea for a column on American (freshwater) Eels came from an article written by Larry McDermott (the article can be viewed in its entirety on the very interesting Mississippi River Festival website – www.mississippiriverheritagefestival.ca). Some of the information included here is from Larry’s article.

American eels are the ultimate long distance swimmers, travelling from the south Atlantic (Sargasso Sea) to some inland waters in Canada and the U.S. Also intriguing is the fact they can survive in either salt or fresh water.

American Eels (Anguilla Rostrata) are members of the Anguilliforme family and may also be called many other names, including Atlantic Eel, Common Eel, Silver Eel, Yellow Eel – among others. Eels are actually elongated fish with long, serpentine bodies covered with deeply embedded scales. The lower jaw is slightly longer than the upper jaw. They have several rows of small teeth on the jaws and roof of the mouth.

I think of eels as being primarily black but there can be a number of colour variations, depending on the age. Larvae are transparent and resemble a willow leaf in shape; juveniles can be yellow or green to olive-brown, while adults are a silvery grey with a white or cream coloured belly. Adult female American Eels can reach up to one metre in length, whereas males are smaller at less than half a metre.

This eel has been identified as a “Species at Risk” in Ontario by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and is also listed as endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Some of the threats to this eel include:

Climate changes which deviate the Gulf Stream

Dams and other barriers affecting their habitat

Turbines may contribute to increased mortality or injury

Chemical contaminants

Commercial fishing

American eels should not be confused with the non-native Sea Lamprey or the much larger eels such as the Giant Moray, which can grow to more than 12 feet long.

As noted before, American eels are spawned in the Sargasso Sea and somehow make their way to some of our inland rivers and lakes! If you look on a globe or a map of the world, you’ll see that the Sargasso Sea is a large area of the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Bahamas and near Bermuda. I find it unbelievable that these eels could ever find their way from a huge ocean to our inland waters.

Only the Anguillidae family regularly lives in fresh water and returns to the sea to breed. Some eels live in water as deep as 4000 meters (13,000 feet). Once they’ve lived in our local waters from 15 to 30 years, the fish spawn, (only one time), after travelling back almost 6000km. into the Sargasso Sea. From there, the larvae drift with the ocean currents and could end up in fresh water anywhere from Venezuela, South America to eastern North America.

According to Larry’s information, eels were one of the most important sources of protein for the Algonquins, who taught settlers to harvest, preserve, make medicines and various waterproof, durable items from eels. They found that this ancient species preserved better than any other source of meat or fish because of its unique high quality fat content.

To this day, eels are eaten in many countries, especially in China and Korea. They’re also popular and considered a gourmet treat in the United States and Europe. Eels may be smoked, deep-fried or jellied. Young eels are called “elvers” and are usually deep-fried. Though eel blood is toxic, the toxins are destroyed by cooking.

Elvers were once eaten by fishermen because they were cheap and plentiful. Now that environmental changes have led to increased rarity of the fish, eels of any type or age command a high price.

Though I, personally, have never seen one of these fish, they apparently migrate through many inland rivers and waterways in southern Ontario and Quebec as well as waterways in the northeastern U.S. so you never know when you may see them. This wide distribution inland is confirmed by the information on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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