In a bitter November wind, fisherman Maurice Bosse, like his father and grandfather before him, is baiting his traps to haul in the most disgusting delicacy in Virginia's James River a slithering mass of eels. But lately something is happening to the staple of his family's business. "Eels are sure getting scarce," Bosse says.
There was a time when eels were plentiful; Bosse's traps would be so full that the eels' skin would be scarred with mesh marks from being jammed against the cage. Then about six years ago, Bosse started seeing a decline in the number of eels he brought in. Bosse isn't sure what is happening to the hearty American eel, and neither are researchers. In Canada's St. Lawrence River, scientists studied a similar recent eel decline and ruled out a number of possibilities. Overfishing? Catches hadn't increased in decades. Too many dams? The dams hadn't stopped the fish before. Global warming? Oceanic changes had occurred in the past without affecting the eels.
The curious decline in American eels, the researchers concluded, could lie at any point along their 6,500-mile migration route. Born in the ocean, the eels live as free-floating larvae for years in ocean currents, then metamorphose into swimmers and move into the mouths of rivers, where they live for sometimes decades, before swimming back to the ocean to spawn and die.
"Many [people] are working for the eel, but its reputation works against it," reports writer Bruce Watson, who touched an eel, ate one and otherwise grudgingly came to admire the slimy creature. "In a world filled with fishermen, dams and diners," concludes Watson, "one has to be slippery to survive."