When it comes time to respond to the Government of Ontario’s American Eel Recovery Strategy, let them know that beauty is more than skin deep. You want eels on the Ottawa River.
What you need to know
1. Eel were once abundant on the Ottawa River.
Eel once accounted for more than 50% of the total fish biomass on the Ottawa River. In other words, if you took all the fish on the Ottawa River and weighed them, half of that weight would be made up of eels. Both Aboriginal elders and early settler accounts speak of the river shimmering silver with eel during the time of migration. In 1932 alone, commercial fishermen in the North Bay District of the Ottawa River harvested over 4000 kg of eel.
Today, both fishers and scientists have a very different story to tell. The last documented eel in Algonquin Park was caught in 1936. Eels disappeared from the upper Mississippi in the 1940s, coincident with the construction of a hydro dam near High Falls. Eel haven’t been seen in Calabogie Lake since the late 1970s, and are now considered locally extinct in Round Lake, Golden lake and in the Bonnechere River above the Renfrew Power Generation station. As for fishers catching 4000 km in the North Bay District, not a single eel has been caught or seen above the dam at Rolphdon for many years.
2. Eels work hard to get into the Ottawa River.
All American eels begin life in the Sargasso Sea where adults return to spawn. As tiny transparent larvae they drift in the Gulf Stream for about a year before transforming into small, clear ‘baby’ eels know as glass eels, which eventually darken to become ‘elvers’. The little elvers make their way up the St. Lawrence into the Ottawa River. All told, the young eels that manage to make it past the predators, the dams and the glass-eel fishery will have travelled over 5000 km to reach our shores.
3. All our eels are female.
Eels on the Ottawa River – and in the St. Lawrence/Lake Ontario system – are all female. They also grow bigger than any other American eels, making them extremely important to the global eel population. Because big females produce exponentially more eggs than small females, they contribute disproportionately more young to the global population. Extinction of our Ottawa River ‘ladies’ could thus have a devastating impact on the survival of the species as a whole.
4. Our eels need your help.
We support the recommendations in the draft Eel Recovery Strategy. Implementing the recommendations of this strategy would go a long way toward protecting eel populations both locally, and across their range.
Ottawa Riverkeeper has sent a letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources supporting the American Eel Recovery Strategy.
We believe that:
1. We have no time to waste.
The future of this species is so precarious we need immediate action to protect our eels. Most importantly, we must ensure that eels are able to migrate into and out of our watershed in sufficient numbers to support a healthy, sustainable global population. We recognize that – with no functioning eel ladders currently on any of our 50 dams – it will take time to develop solutions, so we better get cracking . . . before it’s too late.
2. We need all governments to dive in.
Our eels migrate up to 12,000 km in their lifetime passing through multiple jurisdictions, yet they all come from a single population. We need an international, multi-jurisdictional management strategy to save this species from extinction. To put it another way, everyone needs to dive in, do their part and commit to an overall plan to protect the eel.
3. We need research and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge to guide our actions.
What is the current distribution of eels in the Ottawa River watershed? Where are the mud beds located where they overwinter? How many eels are left in the Ottawa River? The answer to all these questions is the same. We don’t know, but to protect our eels, we need to know, and this work must be adequately supported.
4. We need strong regulations – that are enforced – to ensure fish passage on new and existing dams.
Eels need to ascend our river and its tributaries to grow into our wonderfully large and fertile females. Once mature, these large females must then navigate the river to return to the Sargasso Sea, yet there are no functioning fish ladders/passage on any of the 50 dams within our watershed. While at least some of the small incoming eels seem to manage some of the dams, many of the large females returning to the ocean are sliced apart in the hydroelectric turbines. It seems to us an ignoble death after surviving some 10 to 20 years in the Ottawa River.