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Photograph by Natasha V. S
he was the biggest eel in the bucket, swimming languidly in water that reeked of clove oil. Alastair Mathers, a fisheries biologist, pulled her out first, saying that, counterintuitive as it might seem, clove oil sedates big eels faster than small ones. This girl seemed calm enough. He slid her gently into a nylon sack and hung her from a scale on which she clocked two kilograms, then slid her out and into the V of a varnished plywood measuring board, where she lay quietly, like a metre-long slab of tenderloin. Her belly was buttermilk yellow, hence her classification as a yellow eel, and her back was brown-green, much like the St. Lawrence River washing into the dilapidated boathouse where we stood. She was slathered in thick globs of milky-white mucus.
Mathers measured the diameter of her eyes with calipers to see if they had begun to enlarge, which they do when yellow eels morph into silver eels, in preparation for their long migration back to the Sargasso Sea, off Bermuda, to spawn and die. “This one is close,” he said.
Mathers works for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, and is part of a cohort of biologists who have campaigned relentlessly for interprovincial, provincial-federal, and international agreements to save the American eel in Lake Ontario. Once comprising 50 percent of the fish biomass of the lake and its tributaries, the eel has all but disappeared since the mid-1980s, for reasons no one fully understands. Eels occupy a vast range, including every North American lake, river, and stream they can reach from the Atlantic Ocean.
But some biologists say the eels in Lake Ontario, the Upper St. Lawrence River, and their watersheds are the biggest, oldest, and most fecund of their kind, and are therefore disproportionately important to the future of the species. The fish on Mathers’ measuring board last June, if she makes it back to the Sargasso, could produce as many as 22 million eggs. So while eels may seem abundant elsewhere, particularly in the Maritimes, the eel crisis in Lake Ontario has precipitated a quiet bureaucratic revolution, and a re-evaluation of the severe ecological impact of hydroelectric dams and the long-term measures that can be taken to reduce it.
From Florida to Ontario, there are more than 25,000 dams blocking the eels’ freshwater range, but none more formidable than the Beauharnois dam near Montreal and the R. H. Saunders dam at Cornwall. Both are now equipped with eel ladders to help incoming young eels, called elvers, swim upstream.
However, since neither Hydro-Québec nor Ontario Power Generation knows how to keep outgoing silvers from being killed as they follow the current downstream through the dams’ turbines, the utilities are attempting to make amends in other ways. Hydro-Québec is spending $2.5 million to buy back eel quotas from fishermen in the St. Lawrence and to stock elvers in the Richelieu River, while OPG is spending the same amount to truck elvers rescued in New Brunswick to Lake Ontario, and yellow eels captured in Lake Ontario to Lac Saint-Pierre, a bulge in the St. Lawrence River, east of Montreal. It is believed the yellows will thrive there, morph to silver, then head out for the Sargasso.
The good news for the mother of all eels lying on Mathers’ measuring board was that she would soon be getting into a cool, aerated tank in the back of a cube van for a ride down Highway 401. Of course, there was a price to pay for all this human munificence. As this is still a pilot study, run by fishery biologists, the eels are tagged with microchips injected into the backs of their necks, which show up if they are caught downstream. This eel didn’t much like having a needle stuck into her, and hit reverse as only an eel can. Mathers wore coarse woollen gloves, for a better grip, but they were soggy, and he was losing her.
I leaned across the table to help, thinking I could flatten the arc out of her body and contain her in the trough. This was delusional. She was as cold and smooth as wet ice, and just as unyielding — a metre of greased, flexed muscle. Worse, my hands gave her new points of leverage that propelled her backwards even faster. Mathers let go, and she squirted through my grip, shooting out of the trough. Just as she went airborne, he caught her, now holding the nylon sack, which he wrapped around her for a firmer grasp. He swung her into a bucket of fresh water, where she swirled furiously in circles.
“So much for the clove oil theory,” he said.
eter Hodson was eleven years old the first time he saw an eel, on June 27, 1959. He also saw the Queen that day, a white speck in the distance, as she unveiled the International Friendship Monument, which stands at the precise point where the R. H. Saunders dam, operated by OPG (then Ontario Hydro), meets the New York Power Authority’s Robert Moses dam. The unveiling was in effect a delayed ribbon cutting for the joint hydroelectric complex, which had been in operation for a year. Virtually all the fresh water in the Great Lakes basin, barring leaks through a few ship canals, pours through its thirty-two turbines — nine million litres a second, generating 2,090 megawatts of power. More clearly than he remembers the Queen, Hodson recalls the eels, hundreds of them, their dead, broken bodies floating on the surface downstream.