Ottawa Citizen

An ap­peal for the eels

- Ottawa · Ontario · Gulf Stream · Atlantic Ocean · Petawawa

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.

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