Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 21, 2024
22° Mostly Cloudy
April 24, 2024
Volume 194 No. 17

Protection Required

Depleted American Eel fishery in Lake Ontario watershed a Schedule 1 environmental concern
<p>John Rorabeck and a researcher use electrical probes to attract eels in the Ottawa River sometime in the 1990&#8217;s. (Photo supplied by John Rorabeck)</p>
John Rorabeck and a researcher use electrical probes to attract eels in the Ottawa River sometime in the 1990’s. (Photo supplied by John Rorabeck)

Council is casting its support to keep the American Eel out of fishing nets in the St. Lawrence and other Canadian waters.

Council endorsed a motion from the Environmental Advisory Committee to place the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata) on the Schedule 1 Wildlife Species at Risk of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) earlier this month. 

Successful addition to the list would mean the closure of the commercial eel harvest in Quebec and the maritimes and tougher penalties for poaching. It would also make it easier to demand safer passageway through hydroelectric dams controlled by Hydro One and Hydro-Quebec.

The motion to add the eel to Schedule 1 is a result of a request for direction from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change on listing recommendations with respect to aquatic species at risk.

Big catches and big declines

American eel used to be plentiful in Lake Ontario. Stocks were were abundant and the fishery was lucrative for generations of local fishers.

SCDNR Eel illustration by Duane Raver.

No one knows the highs and the lows of commercial eel fishery better than retired County fisher John Rorabeck. At one point, the snaky thin-finned fish represented 80 per cent of the biomass of the St. Lawrence/Ottawa Rivers and Lake Ontario water systems. Sacred to indigenous peoples, eels were also revered by European colonists.

“Eels were a very important part of the County’s commercial fishery. County fishing families have fished eel for five generations. Even into the 1980’s, local fishers could catch up to a ton of eel in a single night,” said Amy Bodman, who spoke on behalf of Mr. Rorabeck at Council.

Mr. Rorabeck likely had one of the highest quotas for eel in Lake Ontario. He even held an experimental electrofishing license that helped produce great catches. Over time, he started to notice that his nets were getting lighter. Much lighter.

Around 1987, Mr. Rorabeck went to the Glenora Fishery Station and convinced them that eel were disappearing at alarming rates. Dr. John Casselman, a Senior Research Scientist and Adjunct Professor in the Biology Department at Queen’s University, teamed up with Mr. Rorabeck and graduate students to study the eel. They collected very specific data that proved Mr. Rorabeck’s suspicions. Lake Ontario eel populations had fallen by 99 per cent. 

The Ontario government closed the eel harvest in 2005 and started to write Ontario’s American Eel Recovery Strategy.

Hot commodity

There are still American eels swimming about in Lake Ontario today. They start life in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean and drift on currents along the eastern seaboard. From larva, they undergo a complex metamorphosis, first changing into a glass eel then into an elver. They enter freshwater creeks, streams, and rivers, changing again into adult yellow eel. Then, after 8 to 25 years in freshwater, they make the great migration back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die.

If an American Eel is landed by a sports angler or turns up in a local commercial fishing net, it’s been on an epic journey from the mid-Atlantic to Lake Ontario. 

Ms. Bodman noted it is illegal to harvest eel in Europe and populations have plummeted in Asia. American glass eels and elvers are the predominant eel harvested in Atlantic Canada. They are shipped to Asia to supply the global sushi industry.  “A kilogram of glass eels is worth over $5,000. In 2020, a pound of glass eels was worth more than a pound of gold,” said Ms. Bodman. Demand has led to a booming black market.

Even if it evades nets and swims closer to Lake Ontario, the risk to an American Eel isn’t diminished. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the migrating eels are churned up in turbines at the Moses Saunders and Beauharnois power facilities on the St. Lawrence River.

Ms. Bodman concluded her presentation by echoing a statement from Dr. Casselman. He noted that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, an annual average of over 100 tonnes of eels were caught in Lake Ontario in the vicinity of Prince Edward County.

“For people now not to know that this value existed is an insult to the prosperity built by the commercial fishing families. In the late 1970s, over 200 tonnes of eel were caught and sold commercially every year. And they are gone now, as is this fishery. Not to stand up and express a concern about this is an insult to the prosperity built and the people who worked hard to build it – the commercial fishers.” 

A letter from Council advocating for the American Eel to be added to Schedule 1 will be sent to the MECC later this month. 

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 17 edition of The Picton Gazette
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