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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Save the Eel

Air Date: Week of

Young eels attempting to climb through the dam spillgate at Weweantic River, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

Tim and Doug Watts have been fascinated with eels since they were kids growing up in Easton, Massachusetts. Now, as adults, the brothers are on a mission: to get the government to protect the American Eel as an endangered species. Nancy Cohen of member station WNPR spent the day with the Watts to find out why they’re concerned about this slimy creature.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up, how old people will save the world. But first: when it comes to protecting animals there are some that are an easy sell to the public--the ones with melodic songs, furry skin, bright colors or majestic size. But that leaves out most fish. The brothers Doug and Tim Watts want to protect a fish with a slimy reputation: the American Eel. They want it placed on the endangered species list. From member station WNPR in Hartford, Nancy Cohen explains why.

COHEN: Forty-year-old Doug Watts says when he and his big brother Tim were growing up in Easton, Massachusetts the woods and streams were their playground.


D. WATTS: We could come home covered with mud. We could come home with snakes with turtles, with frogs, with bugs, you name it.

Young eels attempting to climb through the dam spillgate at Weweantic River, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

COHEN: And eels. They used eels as bait to catch striped bass on Cape Cod. And Tim recalls the time he and Doug saw an eel unlike any other they’d seen before. They were fishing in a pond with their father and they noticed some fishing tackle floating by.

T.WATTS: We said ‘hey dad look at that bobber lets go grab it.’ So we pulled up our lines and went paddling over there and He hauled it up and there was this great big eel that, you know, was probably three feet long

D. WATTS: It was black too! It was almost coal black.

T. WATTS: It was probably as big around as your arm.

COHEN: They cut the line and let the eel go, but the impression it made stayed with them. Today, Doug’s a writer with the Atlantic Salmon Journal in Maine and fights to protect migrating fish. Tim, a former Marine, is a janitor by night and keeps an eye on the eels by day. One place he checks on them is not far from his home: the Weweantic River in Wareham, Massachusetts.


Glass eels & elvers stuck beneath the Horseshoe Pond Dam, Weweantic River Wareham, MA. (Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

T. WATTS: Couple days ago this place was loaded with ‘em up here all these little pockets in the rocks would be full of these little clumps of eels and I see very few up here now. I have a funny feeling somebody’s up here poaching them.

COHEN: Tim says fishing for the American Eel is one reason its numbers are declining. Eels are considered a culinary delicacy. And demand from Asia and Europe has pushed up the price. Young eels are going for 275 dollars a pound this spring in Maine. And they face other threats including contaminants in rivers and loss of wetland habitat.

Six months ago, the Watts brothers filed a petition with the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the American eel be listed as endangered. Experts are also concerned. A year ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued a statement saying the government should consider the American Eel a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

A defining moment for the Watts brothers came nine years ago when they found a mass of migrating eels stuck below this old mill dam on the Weweantic River. The brothers spent several nights netting them and moving them over the dam.

T. WATTS: If they have to sit below this dam three weeks two weeks a month you get a huge amounts of mortality through predators that you wouldn’t otherwise get if they had free passage upstream.

COHEN: Every spring, Tim sees the same thing: one-year-old American Eels that can’t get past this dam. They’re only a little bigger than a toothpick and spend a lot of time hiding from predators like fish, crabs and birds.


T. WATTS: And you turn over a rock [grunts] and from under the rock they all go squiggling away.

(Photo: Tim Watts ©2004/5)

COHEN: Tim gently picks one up. At this age, the eels are like tiny glass snakes with big black eyes


T. WATTS: That looks like his spine running right through there. They’re so transparent you can look through the top of their head and see their little brain and everything in there

COHEN: They may appear fragile, but these young eels are determined. Some will slither through cracks and crevices in dams, up rivers to ponds where they live for decades. The American eel has a huge range. From Brazil to Greenland. In North America they live in the northeast, the south the Midwest, and the Maritime Provinces. They only spawn once and then die. All are born and migrate from the same place: the clear waters of the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, including the one Tim is holding.

T. WATTS: That little guy came about, I don’t know, a couple thousand miles through the ocean to get here his mother could’ve came out of a river, oh who knows where? Could of came out to the Rio Grande River. Could of came out of Missouri River up in South Dakota. Could’ve came from this river, there’s no telling where it came from it’s kind of amazing.

COHEN: Tim and his brother Doug are fascinated with this animal, but sickened by the obstacles humans have thrown in its way. Doug Watts recalls one fall five years ago when he saw what he thought were vacuum cleaner hoses tangled below a hydroelectric dam.


D. WATTS: The bottom was littered with them and some of these were as long as my leg and they’re all chopped up

COHEN: They were sexually mature female eels heading downstream to the ocean to spawn. But the turbines of a hydropower dam stopped them. Doug says dam operators should give eels a way to get by. He’s gone so far as to leave dead eels on the doorstep of the powerhouse of one dam and has brought buckets of dead eels to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

D. WATTS: You can’t be causing these fish kills. You just can’t be grinding up these female eels while they’re going to spawn for once in life. They’re 40 years ----you know, some of these eels are older than me. They came up these rivers in the 1950s and you know without mothers there’s not going to be any babies. And the amount, the number being killed is frightening.


COHEN: On the Wankinko River in Wareham Doug and Tim walk along a fish ladder designed to help some migrating fish get over a dam. But it’s not much help for young eels. The two brothers stand with their heads bowed, eyes probing the water.

T. WATTS: There’s a whole bunch of ‘em tucked in that little corner by the uh…right at the entrance to the fish way. There’s a big…almost like a great big ball of ‘em.

D. WATTS: Oh yeah, I see ‘em. They’re trying to hide in the corner there.

COHEN: The eels are wriggling like dancers doing a fast shimmy trying to make it upstream. Tim decides to give them a hand. He takes off his shoes and drops into the water.

T. WATTS: Too bad this is radio you can’t see my nice legs! [LAUGHS]

COHEN: He scoops up a net-full of these living noodles, and with Doug beside him, carries them over the dam—which is against state law—and drops them into the water.


T. WATTS: Here’s to illegality, Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience.


D. WATTS: We only have a hundred million left to go.

COHEN: The brothers want the government to take over the protection of this fish and cradle it inside the laws of the Endangered Species Act. They’re still waiting to find out if their petition will be approved. Regardless of the outcome. Tim and Doug Watts will continue to do what they can to save the American Eel. For Living on Earth, I’m Nancy Cohen in Wareham, Massachusetts.



- Petition to List the American Eel as an Endangered Species

- Tim Watt’s website


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