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Ontario Species At Risk: The American Eel

Ontario's Species At Risk Act
When this Act came into force on July 1, 2008, Dalton McGuinty immediately announced sweeping exemptions for industries such as forestry, hydro-electric generating stations, existing pits and quarries, and approved infrastructure and development projects. While the new Act (click here to view) allows an independent scientific committee (COSSARO) to list species at risk, the Minister of Natural Resources can regulate broad exemptions overriding any legislative protection.

Species decline can be attributed to over-exploitation and habitat loss, but the politics associated with remedial action prevents the implementation of effective recovery strategies. Nowhere is this more exemplified than the recovery strategy for the American eel.

american eel
The Fascinating American Eel
This eel is an ancient serpentine fish with a complex and mysterious life cycle, occupying perhaps the broadest range of aquatic habitats of any fish. Spawning occurs in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda and east of the Carolinas in the western Atlantic. Eel larvae (called leptocephalis) are passively carried along the coast of North America by prevailing currents, the Gulf Stream in particular.

They transform into colourless juvenile "glass eels", and move inshore, beginning migrations into estuaries and coastal streams, where they become pigmented "elvers". Some drift into the St. Lawrence River.

Upstream movements of yellow (immature) eels occur gradually as they seek less crowded or better quality habitat and replace eels that have sexually matured and left the river.

It can take about four years for elvers to reach the upper St Lawrence where they develop into yellow eels, and several more for them to move into Lake Ontario, where they finally mature into silver eels, ready to migrate back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

At high densities, eels mature relatively quickly, producing large numbers of males. At lower densities, females predominate and they mature more slowly. Historically, Lake Ontario produced large females exclusively.

Eels may remain in freshwater from 5 to 20 years or longer (eels more than 30 years old have been reported and the oldest known is reputedly over 80 years old) depending upon their growth rate, which is governed by feeding and environmental conditions.

Large female eels may exceed one metre (3ft) in length and weigh over 2 kg (94.5 lb), but males seldom grow longer than half a metre.

Protecting a Vanishing Species - The Problem
The American eel is in rapid decline in Ontario because of the effects of hydro-electric power generation facilities, whose impact on eel migratory movements is overwhelmingly the most important historical influence on the abundance of eels in the St Lawrence watershed.

Simultaneously with passage of the Species at Risk Act, the Ontario government announced a $2.5M recovery strategy to protect the American eel at the Moses-Saunders dam in Cornwall. This dam is jointly owned and operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and the New York Power Authority, and is the largest dam in eastern North America. It generates electrical power, but its primary role is to regulate water levels for shipping in the St Lawrence River.

The turbines at hydro electric facilities kill eels as they migrate downstream on their way to spawn in the Sargasso Sea. In the St Lawrence River system, 40% of mature eels are sliced by turbines. The physical barriers created by hydro dams also block young eels from migrating upstream to their freshwater habitats. Lake Ontario, an important portion of the eels' freshwater habitat in Canada, has been made inaccessible by dams in Ontario and Quebec.

Click here for photos of eels sliced by turbines at the Mose-Saunders Dam.

The Recovery Strategy
The two-part recovery strategy for American Eel simply involves stocking glass eels in the Upper St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario (USLR-LO); and transporting the mature eels downstream past the Moses-Saunders Dam. Over the period from 2006 to 2011, the budget on stocking from the Maritimes is about $1.12M, with about $0.38M planned for monitoring this program. About $1M is for conducting research into methods to trap mature eels in the USLR-LO and to transport them downstream of the generating stations. Eels will be transported by truck and released into Lake St-Pierre about 100 km downstream of Montreal.

Part of OPG's Action Plan includes research into the development of monitoring techniques. To date OPG has undertaken boat electrofishing, and modified minnow traps to monitor stocked eels. This Action Plan has been accepted by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

A Quick Fix Solution?
Stocking and trucking species at risk is not a meaningful conservation measure. This approach failed to protect endangered wild pacific salmon in Washington State, and environmentalists there are now demanding the removal of dams that impede natural salmon migration.

To protect the America eel in the St Lawrence, the Ontario government would need to partially remove or shut down turbines at the Moses-Saunders Generating Station, and allow migrating eels to be directed through the waterway towards safe passage.

An understanding of the details of the long life span of American eel and its vast migration route has eluded researchers. Many stages of the eel's life cycle remain a mystery, especially factors controlling gender differentiation. The stocking of glass eels from the Maritimes could interfere with normal sexual development and destroy the poorly understood, female-only population of American eel in Lake Ontario. Yet no funds are dedicated to further enhance our knowledge of this unique aspect of the American eel's life cycle and its relationship to the Lake Ontario ecology.

This program is cleverly designed to preserve the presence of eels in Lake Ontario without disrupting the everyday operations of Ontario Power Generation. But since it does not address the root cause of decline or attempt to restore a natural life cycle for the American Eel, Ontario is certain to lose this fascinating creature forever.
Clearly Green Design