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Counting Eels In The Hudson River Estuary

For the 14th season, volunteers up and down the Hudson River estuary are searching creeks and streams for juvenile American eels. It’s part an effort coordinated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University.

Knee deep in the chilly Hannacroix Creek in the Albany County Town of New Baltimore, DEC researcher Chris Bowser and a couple volunteers untie a long, conical net along the shady bank.

“Oh and look at that. Right off the bat. We open up the net, and look in here. See these wiggling pieces of linguini? That is a classic glass eel right there.”

Glass eels are transparent, one-year-old American eels. About two or three inches long, the tiny eels have reached upstate New York after a thousand-mile migration up the East Coast. Bowser says it’s theorized that the eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, off Puerto Rico.

“No scientist, no nobody has ever seen eels actually spawning, has ever found those eggs hatching. And it’s a guesswork and it’s a guess that is 100 years old at this point.”

The search for the baby eels is part of the Hudson River Eel Project, an annual effort that’s made possible by the DEC, Cornell University, and dozens of volunteers, like Clara Baxter, who came today with her husband, Jim.

“One year we had 2,000 in one day. A couple years later we had 26,000 in one day. Yesterday we had, I don’t know, like 35 eels…”

Baxter doesn’t know why the team found so few eels – several of which were 2- and 3-year-old eels called elvers…

“I don’t know but he’s going to find out!” says Baxter as Bowser laughs. “He’s going to answer that question, not me. I’m just sitting here counting these and they’re adorable. I know that sounds crazy because they look like little pipettes with black dots on them, but they’re just adorable!”

Volunteer Barbara Hinzen also loves the eels. She lives right across the road from the monitoring site in the Hannacroix Creek.

“It’s fun seeing people every spring. And it’s been a real…what do you call it…it’s a source of endless curiosity to see what comes up when.”

Hinzen has developed a technique for counting the eels, which arrive at her feet in a plastic pail.

“What I like to do is get a bunch in one of these little fish nets, and then as they crawl out I count them. So that’s one…”

As the glass eels and elvers wriggle out of Hinzen’s aquarium net into a smaller bucket, they’re tallied in a binder.  After they’re counted, they’re released upstream from the net, to minimize chances that they’re caught again.

The Hannacroix Creek is one of 15 sites being monitored, from Staten Island to Troy. The eels themselves are an important part of the ecosystem – the juvenile eels are a food source for many species. Adult eels grow to be predators around two feet in length. Those that survive will remain in their freshwater homes for 10 years or more before returning to the ocean to spawn.

The species in decline over much of its range, which makes the study of eels in the Hudson River estuary all the more important. Bowser explains...

“This is one piece of a larger question of ‘How are eels doing?’ Are eels on a comeback trail? Do we have to be worried about eels? How are eels not just doing here on the Hudson, but coast-wide? And we’re able to provide a few pieces of that puzzle. That’s on the science end. On the community end, one of the goals of this project is to involve people in community science to get high school students, college interns, retirees, watershed groups, sportsmen’s groups, everybody engaged in their resources.”

The nets used to catch the eels will stay in the water for about six to eight weeks. Counting can take a while, but Bowser’s written some eel songs to pass the time…

“Long time ago, when the river was a really dirty/down at the banks of Ol’ Miss Liberty/an eel was swimming upstream, a shad was swimming down/they passed each other once again, this time they went around, oh!”

To learn more visit: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/39663.html

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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