The American eel is in trouble. So says James Prosek, author of a widely- respected book on eels. Last week Mr. Prosek told the Vineyard Gazette that he thinks, “absolutely,” that the American eel should be listed as endangered.

Mr. Prosek, 37, was on the Vineyard to give a talk at the Vineyard Haven Public Library on his book, Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish. Mr. Prosek is a highly-recognized naturalist, writer and artist. His other books are Trout of the World and Trout, an Illustrated History. The book on eels was published by Harpers in 2010, and much of the information contained in it is as relevant today as it was when it came out two years ago.

At Mr. Prosek’s Tuesday night presentation, he said he is now working on a made-for-television science program on eels

Today, eels that are harvested when they are tiny [no larger than three inches in length] in the waters off Maine, can fetch as much as $2,000 a pound. The eels are transported to China where they are raised commercially for market. Eels are catadromous; they spawn in the center of the ocean. In the Atlantic they spawn a thousand miles east of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea, but no one knows precisely where. So far no one has ever seen or captured on film that critical moment when the animals spawn. Scientists can only speculate that the males and females will swarm in tight balls of 100,000 in the space of 30 cubic feet.

Unlike anadromous fish like herring that spend a brief moment at the beginning of their life and in adulthood in freshwater, eels are the opposite and spend most of their adult life in fresh and brackish water, yet at one point when they are born or in their adult life, they are a product of the ocean. Scientists believe, but don’t know with certainty, that once an adult animal has spawned, it dies. “Science may not be able to provide us with what we need to know about how they procreate,” Mr. Prosek told the Gazette.

While attempts have been made to artificially spawn these animals in captivity, there are serious problems associated with the effort, and the eels produced in this manner fall far short of naturally-spawned juveniles. Thus the value of juvenile eels has risen to over $2,000 a pound.

“I cannot think of any other fish that has such a drive for life,” Mr. Prosek said. He said he has seen eels climb walls vertically, following a trickle of freshwater. He has seen them swim with great urgency from freshwater to saltwater to finish their mission in life.

Mr. Prosek said that the American eel is no different than the passenger pigeon, which is now extinct. Years ago the passenger pigeon represented 20 to 30 per cent of bird biomass in the region. At one time eels accounted for as much as 50 per cent of the biomass in freshwater and coastal ponds. Now the last of the surviving eels may, too, falter and disappear, he said.

Naturalists and eel fans are awaiting word from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on their finding of whether it will list the American eel as an endangered species. A status review is underway and a determination is not expected this year, according to Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, northeast region.

“The endangered species [designation] only protects those animals that are critically endangered, with only a few individuals left. It is a critical point. With the eel, there may seem to be a lot of them, but there are not enough of them to carry out the life cycle,” Mr. Prosek said. “Eels are in trouble even if a couple of million are left. This is a creature that needs many individuals to carry out their life history.”

Groundfish Troubles Follow

C.M. (Rip) Cunningham Jr., chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, is in his ninth year on the council. He said he is as frustrated as anyone in trying to grapple with the troubles groundfish are having off the New England coast.

Two weeks ago, his council executive committee heard from a team of scientists calling for additional cuts to protect the cod that swim in our waters, along with cuts for yellowtail flounder and American plaice. Haddock are in trouble in the Gulf of Maine. The portrayal that cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder and American Plaice are in need of further tightening is worrisome for fishermen, fisheries managers and anyone who likes to eat cod. They are a fish that should be doing better than they are, with all the cuts in fishing effort that have taken place over the last 30 years.

The New England Fishery Management Council, NEFMC, is charged with overseeing 27 species of fish, of which 19 species are groundfish. The council presides over fish stocks that are in federal waters, from three miles out to 200 miles. There are successes in bringing back some species, like Georges Bank haddock. Pollock is in pretty good shape. Georges Bank winter flounder are doing well along with red fish.

Closer to the Vineyard shore and not in the purview of the New England council, striped bass and summer flounder are in wonderful abundance now.

In an interview with the Vineyard Gazette last week, Mr. Cunningham said: “We need more science that looks at the ecosystem as a whole. In the past we have managed each single species separately. That is not the way that fish live out there.” There is an interactive community that needs attention when adopting management regimes.

Mr. Cunningham said he doesn’t like the idea of establishing marine sanctuaries, areas of the ocean that are closed to all fishing. There are large portions of Georges Bank that are already closed to fishermen. “I don’t like just closing close to 5,000 square miles of water, a place that nobody can touch,” he said.

“[Rather] I think marine sanctuaries [and] closures should be used for specific reasons. They should be under review. For instance, there are spawning closures that when put in the right place, will protect fish when they spawn. I happen to feel these are important. But I think they should be only seasonal.”

Mr. Cunningham said he wants to see better science. “We need science that is credible in the eyes of the industry. In other parts of the country, there is an extensive and cooperative research effort that is undertaken by both science and the industry.” Fishing boats are helping in gathering information. “When you get numbers coming out, you have at least a buy-in from the industry,” Mr. Cunningham said. “There is very little buy-in from the industry regarding the science for groundfish. Better numbers make for better decision-making,” Mr. Cunningham said.

In the last few years, management has shifted the way fishermen and their boats can pursue their catch. In the years past, fishermen were given a number of days a year they could fish for groundfish. The number of days have dropped through the years because of concerns of overfishing.

Days at Sea, as it was called, was not a popular method for fishermen, for it forced them to sometimes set aside their concerns about safety, weather and how they traverse the waters, because every day they were on the water counted.... even if they weren’t fishing.

The new system in place calls for catch shares. Fishermen are delegated a piece of a bigger pie and they can choose when and where they take their allotment. Mr. Cunningham said: “Industry felt [Days at Sea] was not working.”

In the last week, Mr. Cunningham said he has noted that there has been a tendency to criticize the new management regimen adopted. “A lot of what you hear is rhetoric being caused by the new share program,” Mr. Cunningham said. The new action needed to protect cod and yellowtail flounder has no connection to the change in the management regimen, he said: “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”