Earth Matters: An Eel’s Journey: A Troubled Present

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part essay on American eels; the first was released on Saturday, March 19. Nehoumo is the Abenaki name for this eel.

Eels such as Nehoumo, our Connecticut River eel, live in all the countries that border the North Atlantic Ocean, from Russia and the Mediterranean to northern Quebec and the Gulf of Mexico. However, they play distinctly different roles in American and European history.

Here is a Mi’kmaq story of eel, lobster, and Kluskap, a benevolent figure from the Algonquian lands:

In Kluskap’s time, the water in the river was clear and cool until a monster eel swam down the river and pushed all the fish and fresh water into the salty bay. Turtle told Kluskap of the cruel ordeals that resulted. Kluskap gave great powers to Lobster, who grew greatly in size and strength and battled the evil eel. The long battle kicked up lots of mud and lots of waves up the river until the eel was killed. And even today in the bay of Kluskap and on the muddy river, with a bend, the battle scene takes place twice a day.

Eels are ubiquitous in the way of life of the Algonquin and Haudenosaunee natives of northeastern America and eastern Canada. They appear in the stories and form one of the nine Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) clans. Eel forms an important part of the diets of Northeastern tribes, both fresh and smoked. Smoked eel accompanied the natives on long journeys and helped prevent starvation during the winter. They were trade items and featured on the table at the first Wampanoag/English Thanksgiving in 1621.

The Indians fished for eel throughout the year, using different spears and techniques. The fall migration of silver eels provided the best opportunities for families to come together and collect thousands of fat eels from stone dams, some of which are still visible after centuries of use.

Tribal names for eel varied widely: nehoumo of the Abenaki was pimisi of the Anishinabe, and Kiawerón:ko of the Mohawk, ga’t of the Mik’maq in Maine and kataq on Cape Breton Island. . In the Mik’maq world, eel skin was ga’tomi, which was used as soles of boots, bindings, bindings, crafts, stabilizers for broken bones, and medicine. The tail was bait for fishing. Eel oil was added to baby bottles for nutrition and to introduce babies to the taste of eel.

However, not all native tribes held the eel in high regard. I asked my friend John Currahee about eel in southeastern lifestyles, and he replied a bit of an Ogden Nash doggerel: “I don’t care about eels/except as a meal/ and how they feel.”

John is a Southeastern Native American, steeped in the Cherokee language, and wrote that he had “never heard of eating eels among the Saponi or Cherokee…I know of no significant use of them by the peoples Catawba and Lumbee. I’m sure some of them may have eaten the critters on occasion, but most wouldn’t make an effort to do so. The mountain people would not choose to eat them even if they were available, except to avoid starvation. So much for the hypotheses on the uniformity of relations between Native Americans and our fellows!

In Europe, on the other hand, the eel played the role of the most mysterious of fish. 2500 years ago, Aristotle, finding no sexual organs in eels, became convinced that they came spontaneously from mud, while Pliny the Elder discovered that eels were made from the peeled skin that the old eels rubbed off on the rocks.

More than two millennia later, in 1876, Sigmund Freud, an undergraduate biology student, spent an unsuccessful summer in Trieste dissecting eels, looking for sex organs (irony noted). It took until 1896 to find a male eel off the coast of Sicily, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a persistent Dane, Johannes Schmidt, discovered that mature silver-stage eels were spawning somewhere in the Sargasso Sea.

Marine scientists have spent many decades tracking eels and studying their life cycle. What we do know: All eels, whether New World or Old World, spawn in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda. No one has seen eels spawning yet.

European and American species can interbreed, and those with mixed parents are found in Iceland. Eels from cooler waters in Canada are predominantly female, while the sex ratios of watersheds in the United States are highly variable. Eels still hold enough secrets to ensure the humility of scientific investigators.

The future of the eel

Unfortunately, the future of the eel is problematic: parts of Europe and northeastern America have lost more than 90% of their eel population since 1980. First and foremost, hydroelectric dams are a major culprit, as silver eels are minced in the impellers of hydroelectric turbines during fall migration.

Second, until recently, fishing regulations allowed the capture of millions of tons of glass eels for export to Europe and the Far East. The practice is now banned in parts of North America.

Finally, climate change is transforming habitat and moving ocean currents away from US shores, where all American eel larvae land.

Once America’s most common fish, eel numbers are drastically reduced and their future is uncertain. So what difference does it make?

Let me remind you of Rachel Carson’s description of us: “Each of us carries in our veins a salty current in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. is our heritage. »

Ultimately, we are all sea creatures, and this fellowship offers us a chance for grace.

John Sinton is co-moderator of the Mill River Greenway Initiative, honorary trustee of the Connecticut River Conservancy, author of “Devil’s Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History” and co-author of “The Connecticut River Boating Guide”. “He is deeply grateful to Steve Gephard for his advice and corrections.Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and has a sliding scale fee structure for families facing financial hardship. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider making a donation at


Leave a Comment