An appeal for the eels
Eels don’t get universal love at first sight among humans, which is just sheer bad luck. Being shaped like a snake doesn’t win many friends.
But the fish is the focus of a valuable new perspective on the health of the Ottawa River from the Algonquins of Ontario, who have published a paper calling for the protection of eels.
Eels used to be common in the Ottawa but are now so rare that Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources asks fishermen to report sightings of them.
Their big problem lies in migration. Mature eels travel down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to spawn in the Sargasso Sea, east of the Gulf Stream. The young eels come back up to the Ottawa.
This system worked well until hydroelectric dams started blocking their route. Eels are good climbers and can often travel upstream past dams, but can be cut to pieces when they migrate downstream through turbines.
Enter the Algonquins, with a list of recommendations that may take other people by surprise (Save the eels? Really?) but which make a lot of sense. Protect the eel, they reason, and wider protection of the watershed itself will flow from that.
The Algonquins say the eel has a sacred place in their culture.
Their paper smoothly blends tradition with modern science. For instance, they want to focus on the Ottawa River rather than Lake Ontario, as the Ottawa is less degraded and stands a better chance of remediation. And they point out that as recently as the 1980s, the eel was far more common than today, so it doesn’t need a return to river conditions that predated industrial society.
Their call for practical action focuses on creating ways for eels to migrate past obstacles. The Algonquins aren’t calling for the removal of dams, but they do want bypass channels or other passageways such as eel ladders at dams. There are six problematic hydro dams between the eels and the Atlantic, they say, and copying the eel ladder on the Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall would be a good first step. In the meantime, they want someone to help the few remaining eels during migration, just as conservationists sometimes catch migrating salmon and lift them around dams.
As well, the Algonquins want to prevent future hydroelectric dams on the Petawawa River, which remains free of obstacles.
These are all simple, good ideas.