It is one of Earth's creepier creatures — a squirming, snakelike fish bound for no real glory beyond its role in sushi or as bait on a fishing hook. But it is largely for...
HADLEY, Mass. — It is one of Earth’s creepier creatures — a squirming, snakelike fish bound for no real glory beyond its role in sushi or as bait on a fishing 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.
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“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.
Watts and his brother Doug — who lives in Augusta, Maine — have filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the Western Hemisphere’s only freshwater eel as an endangered species.
The brothers grew up fishing Massachusetts rivers and streams, and Tim Watts pretty much took eels for granted. They were easily available to catch and use as bait for striped bass. But he took his children fishing a year ago 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 one place — the Sargasso Sea, an expanse of warm, algae-filled water in the Atlantic Ocean. After hatching in those waters, east of Bermuda, they are carried by currents that deposit them at the mouths of rivers from South America to Greenland. They swim into fresh water, making their way as far inland as Wisconsin.
When they mature, the eels swim back to the Sargasso to spawn and end their lives. The journey can take up 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 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 used as sushi in Asia.
“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. “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 that 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 answered fully.
By Feb. 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have reviewed the 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.
Meanwhile, 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?”