The American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)

By Carmelo “Mel” Russo

The American eel is a less than common inhabitant of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. These eels have true jaws and teeth, and are the most voracious of fresh water predators. The American eel, like its close relative, the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) must return to the Sargasso Sea, southeast of Bermuda, to spawn. After hatching, the ribbon like, transparent larvae (glass eels) are transported by ocean currents to the Atlantic coasts of North America, the Gulf of Mexico and the upper portions of South America. Gradually they gain pigment and enter their “elver” stage. At this time they make their way back into fresh water often climbing hundreds of feet in elevation. They may even go over land to reach upstream feeding grounds where they grow for approximately eight years and attain lengths up to five feet. Males are smaller. At sexual maturity, they return to the tropical ocean to spawn in deep, warm waters and then die. The officially documented record New York catch for the American eel is nearly eight pounds and it was caught in Cayuga Lake in 1984.

The American eel is native to Cayuga Lake and some of the other Finger Lakes entering them via the Oswego and Seneca River systems even prior to the construction of the canals. Jesuit missionaries, the first Europeans to visit and establish a mission on Cayuga near Union Springs, reported in 1671 that “fishing for salmon and eel is abundant.” Local folk lure also has it that Cayuga Lake was once very famous for its eel fishery. One young native angler recalls his father catching a specimen that hung nearly the length of a garage door opening. Fishermen from great distances traveled to catch the rarely seen fish because it is highly prized for its flesh.

In olden times before the real life cycle of the common eel was known, it was thought eels arose from the mud by spontaneous generation. This erroneous inference developed because the roe of the females was never fully ripened when caught in fresh water. The internal maturation of the ova apparently occurs some time after arrival at sea.

Eels eat other fish and aquatic organisms. Although they appear snakelike and quite intimidating, they never bother humans. We can appreciate them as a significant, original component of the Cayuga Lake ecosystem. In recent years, there has been marked decline in the abundance of the American eel in North America. They are currently being evaluated for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Contributing Editor: Doug Dixon

Image sources:

Eel painting © Jeffrey C Domm