Late last month, bystanders near Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, New York witnessed a man dressed in white dumping two garbage bags full of live, wriggling eels into the lake, reports Marion Renault of the Associated Press (AP).
Andrew Orkin, a music composer who was out for an evening run near the lake, saw one of the two large plastic trash bags split open as a man dragged them towards the water’s edge, spilling the writhing creatures onto the ground, according to the AP.
Another witness, Dominick Pabon, was angling for catfish with his wife when he heard the man dragging the bags of eels cry “I’m saving their lives!” when onlookers started to press him for details about what in the world he thought he was doing.
Pabon, a chef and oyster caterer, tells Jack Denton of Curbed that he’s caught a few black spotted eels in the lake in recent years, but that the species isn’t native to the area. Pabon confronted the eel liberator and recorded a video of the encounter with his phone, according to Ray Villeda of NBC New York.
On the video, Pabon can be heard telling the man that dumping live animals into the lake is illegal and that his activities may end up "killing other life" by disrupting the lake’s ecosystem.
The Prospect Park Alliance corroborated the illegality of the eel dumping in a statement to NBC New York: “The release of pets and other animals in the park is illegal without a permit. It is a hazard both to those animals and the plants and wildlife that call the park home."
The Brooklyn Paper's Ben Verde reports that fines for illegal dumping range from $1,500 to $10,000 for the first violation, and $5,000 to $20,000 for each subsequent violation.
Most non-native animals set loose into New York’s parks and waterways will quickly die, but some can thrive and become invasive species that can damage the surrounding environment. For example, red-eared sliders, a popular species of pet turtle, have taken over many of New York City’s freshwater ecosystems, crowding out native species such as spotted turtles, musk turtles, map turtles, bog turtles, wood turtles, painted turtles, Eastern mud turtles, and diamondback terrapins, reports Caroline Hopkins for National Geographic.
“People like animals and they sometimes think they’re doing a good thing by letting them go,” Jason Munshi-South, urban ecologist at Fordham University, tells the AP. “Most will die. Some will become a problem, and then there’s no going back.”
City officials tell the AP that it’s too early to tell how this latest release of eels will impact the Brooklyn lake’s ecosystem. Photos suggest that the trash bags were filled with swamp eels, which are native to Southeast Asia and have a voracious appetite.
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation tells the AP they will look for swamp eels in surveys in the spring, but that they don’t expect the eels to survive the winter. Nicholas Mandrak, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Toronto, tells the AP that the eels could still have deleterious effects on the ecosystem in the short term.
Mandrak also posited that as climate change warms New York’s climate, certain non-native species that might have once been killed off by the region’s winters could survive.
“We shouldn’t come to an immediate conclusion that because they’re found in Asia they couldn’t survive in New York City,” he tells the AP.