The American eel

The Issue

The American eel was once the dominant fish species in the Ottawa River. In the past 40 years, it has declined by 99% and, along with it, so has the appreciation for its rich historical, ecological and cultural values within the watershed. In response, the Ontario government has listed the American eel as a species at risk. Ottawa Riverkeeper and its allies will not accept the continued decimation of this iconic species.

Since its listing as an endangered species under the Ontario Endangered Species Act in 2008, efforts have been underway to aid in the recovery of the American eel throughout the Ottawa River watershed through various collaborative projects from government, industry, NGOs and local community groups alike.

The American eel, a unique elongated fish native to eastern Canada, is one of the most remarkable and vulnerable fish species in the Ottawa River. This species has a fascinating and complex life history compared to most other fish. It is one of the few species that is capable of living in both salt and freshwater. Starting off as a small egg in the Sargasso Sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, young eels hatch and migrate along oceanic currents to the many freshwater streams and rivers along North America’s east coast. They make their home there for many years before tracing their roots back to the Ocean. Once an extremely abundant species throughout the Ottawa River and its surrounding tributaries, today it is considered rare and at risk of disappearing from these waters. Over the past 30 years, the population of American eel in the Ottawa River has suffered a rapid decline. It is estimated that the historical population of this species, once numbering in the several thousands, has decreased by as much as 99% leaving its numbers in the mere hundreds. As a result, American eel are now designated as a species-at-risk in Ontario.

While there are a number of factors contributing to the decline, such as commercial fisheries, pollution and habitat degradation, it is hydroelectric dams that have had the most significant impact on the American eel. The construction of dams creates a barrier to both upstream and downstream migration of the American eel and limits the availability of its freshwater habitat. An eel seeking to migrate upstream, is often unable to bypass these barriers and downstream migration can be lethal as a result of passage through hydro-electric turbines.

How Are We Helping?

Ottawa Riverkeeper has pushed the Ontario provincial government to list the American eel as a species at risk, and commented on the Government Response Statement for how to protect the endangered species. We organize annual Trap and Transfers to help with eel migration, and spearhead Eel Days, to help increase awareness on this issue. We are also working closely with hydro companies to address how best to protect this population during their migration.