Bowdoin college student wrestles American eels in the name of science

Posted Aug. 08, 2013, at 5:51 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2013, at 6:36 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Although “wrestling” slippery American eels is no easy task, a Bowdoin College senior spent his summer on Merrymeeting Bay, setting traps at key locations and out-maneuvering the elusive creatures in order to measure them before dropping them back in the brackish water.

“They’re dripping with slime,” Patrick Millet of Haiti said Thursday. And before you can measure them, he said, “You have to get them to calm down — by tiring them out.”

But the sometimes arduous task — which he said doesn’t harm the resilient eels — is designed to help restore the species whose numbers have declined along the northeastern Atlantic seaboard during the past few decades.

Because the American eel has been a crucial food source to the region for hundreds of years, preserving the species is as important economically as it is ecologically, according to Millet’s college professor, John Lichter.

Working under a fellowship with Lichter and Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, Millet and other students spent their summer days in the Merrymeeting Bay estuary, trapping eels — which can grow as long as five feet — and measuring them in six different areas. He hoped to learn whether the eels prefer to dwell in areas with abundant “submersive aquatic vegetation” — plants that grow underwater — or in more sandy locations without the plants.

Millet thinks he trapped about 200 eels this summer — although he said many are likely “recaptures” — and he’s pretty sure he began to recognize some of them.

While he has not yet analyzed the data, Millet said Thursday that vegetation “seems to be very important to providing habitat and hiding spaces for the fish … it’s pretty important for the ecology of the bay in general.”

American eels from Greenland to South America live as adults in fresh water, then migrate to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic to spawn. The adults die and the juveniles are carried by the Gulf Stream toward North America, along the way transforming into “glass eels” or elvers.

Netting Maine fishermen nearly $2,000 per pound in 2012, elvers — juvenile American eels — became one of the most significant Maine fisheries in recent years.

But Lichter said the decline of the American eel led, in part, to the decline of the cod fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine. According to Lichter, any chance cod fishery and the once-robust industry that it spawned has at recovery relies on the eel and other species that cod eat.

“The thing about the cod fishery is that everybody thinks ‘Overfishing, overfishing, overfishing,’” Lichter said. “It’s actually more than that. We undermined the food web, maybe even earlier than overfishing [it]. When we built the dams in the 1800s, the forage fish — the food cod need to eat — could no longer get in to spawn, so now those populations decline, and the cod follow. We can’t get the cod to come back unless they have a forage base to feed on.”

Millet said he hopes his research will help protect the threatened American eel populations — and perhaps provide information to help restore the decimated cod fishing industry in what was one of the world’s greatest fisheries.

“I don’t think what I’m doing is going to save the eels,” Millet said. “But it could help.”