Our American eels are vital, but they’re in trouble

Despite its cultural significance and ecological role in the Ottawa River, the American eel has dramatically declined in recent decades. This fascinating species has been heavily impacted by changes in the watershed. We believe you should know why this has happened and why American eels matter in the Ottawa River.

Why are American eels in the Ottawa River important?

Every year, thousands of newly hatched eels undertake a grueling journey from the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean to freshwater habitats as far north as Greenland all the way to South America. Despite covering an enormous range, many eels also migrate here, to our watershed. In fact, the American eels in the Ottawa River are an essential part of the global population and their impact extends far beyond our borders.

All of the eels in our watershed are female. What’s more, scientists have found that our eels are among the most fertile in the entire world! Female eels who travel to the Ottawa River watershed spend up to 25 years in our region, taking this time to grow and mature into powerful swimmers strong enough to return to the Sargasso Sea. Therefore, American eels in the Ottawa River are crucial to ensuring the continuity of future generations at a global scale. They also play an integral role as representatives of this endangered species.

As a top predator in aquatic ecosystems, these fish are key in controlling the populations of other organisms including, but not limited to, molluscs, crustaceans, insects, and other species of fish. Furthermore, they are a critical part of the watershed’s food chain while young, acting as prey for larger fish and many birds, including bald eagles and gulls. 

In Algonquin Anishinaabe communities, the American eel, called “Pimisi,” has been a significant part of traditions for thousands of years. Along with being harvested and smoked to be preserved over winter, this fish is a sacred source of spirituality and medicine. To reflect its importance for the original stewards of this land, the Algonquins of Ontario chose the name “Pimisi” for an LRT station in downtown Ottawa. In addition, the American eel is also an important figure in other cultures. When accounting for French, English, Algonquin, and other Indigenous languages throughout its range, it is known by over 16 different names!

What has happened to American eels in the Ottawa River?

Hundreds of years ago, when the Ottawa River flowed freely without any barriers impeding its path, scores of American eels knifed their way through the salty currents of the Atlantic Ocean to our welcoming waters. At this time, the American eel was considered the most abundant fish in the Kichi Sibi.

Today, the situation is very different. The American eel population in the Ottawa River has declined drastically, by 99% in the last 4 decades! In fact, in Ontario it has completely disappeared from parts of its range, which led to it being given endangered status in the province in 2008. In Quebec, it is likely to be designated as threatened or vulnerable. While eels still exist in the Ottawa and its tributaries, few remain. As a result, researchers fear they may soon disappear.

The science is clear: the main threat to American eels are dams. In fact, in the Ottawa River, this species’ precipitous decline began at the same time as hydroelectric dams began construction, such as the Carillon hydroelectric generating station. Dams block American eel migration routes, reducing and fragmenting their optimal habitat. Sadly, these human-made structures can even cause eel deaths if they happen to pass through the turbines.

American eels in the Ottawa River are globally important

The dramatic decline in the Ottawa River’s American eels matters not only to our region, but to the entire global population, which is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Migration barriers, such as dams, deny these fascinating fish from reaching their freshwater habitats, returning to the Atlantic, and fulfilling their role in spawning the next generation of American eels. If we wish for these fish to continue to play their necessary role as top predators and for future generations to have a chance to witness an eel within their lifetime, we need you, the entire Ottawa River watershed community, to protect these lovely ladies.

3 responses to “Our American eels are vital, but they’re in trouble”

  1. Jenn Cuff says:

    I live on the Ottawa River and this past summer, of 2020, a watercraft passed by our home shoreline, twice, at night with bright lights. I asked some questions of them and they said they were researching eels in the Ottawa River. Did I witness the Ottawa Riverkeeper researchers at work? I was told they discovered more sturgeon than eels in our area of the River. Which makes sense I suppose, since the Chenaux Generating Station is nearby.

  2. Katy Alambo says:

    Hi Jenn. If only we had the resources to do such work! It’s likely you came across researchers from OPG who have been investigating American Eel and Lake Sturgeon near the Chenaux Generating Station.

  3. Helen Mason says:

    Thank you. This is just one more reason why the government should avoid placing a nuclear waste dump at Chalk River, within a kilometre of the Ottawa River. Also, I grew up on Georgian Bay, where lamprey eels are a problem. This gives me the information I need to explain to my family why the American eel needs preserving.

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