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December 05, 2016
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Possible changes in store for eeling on the Upper Delaware

People are not the only consumers of eel. This eight-week-old bald eagle is attempting to eat an eel, while the parent looks on. Eels are an important part of river habitat. As aquatic carrion eaters, they are prey for many predator species of fish and birds.
TRR photo by Scott Rando

Anyone who has paddled or fished the Upper Delaware River has probably spotted one of the dozen or so eel weirs in the river. Located in shallow rapids, these weirs are v-shaped with a trap at the downstream side. Boulder-sized rocks are used to construct the v, and the rock obstruction channels eels down to the trap. Operating an eel weir is hard work and involves some risk due to river flooding during late summer and fall, when the eel harvest takes place. To gain an insight on eeling on the Delaware, visit Sandy Long’s October. 2009 article at www.riverreporter.com/issues/09-10-01/rivertalk.html.

Although the eel population in the Delaware seems to be supporting this fishery, there is concern due to overall decline in the eel population throughout its range, which is most of the eastern seaboard. Factors such as dams, loss of habitat, contaminants and heavy demand for young first-run elvers or “glass eels” by overseas markets are thought to be contributing to the decline. Eels are considered to be catadromous; they are born in the sea, but migrate to fresh-water rivers and tributaries to live before finally returning to their natal hatching areas in the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Because of this migration pattern, events that may occur several states away may ultimately affect the population of American eels locally.

On a national level, proposed changes have been in the works for several years. In 2010, the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the American eel under the Endangered Species Act. A settlement agreement was approved in 2013, calling for USFWS to publish a proposed rule by September 30, 2015.

Locally, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries biologist Kathy Hattala held a public informational meeting at the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) office on June 30 in order to review draft regulatory changes to the interstate fishery plan for the American eel. There were four proposals under consideration, ranging from complete fishery closure at the end of the year to limiting the number of weir fishery permits to present and past permitees. These proposals are outlined in a letter sent to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) by the UDC on July 15 this year, urging extension of this historic eel fishery on the New York State portion of the Delaware River. A copy of the UDC letter can be found here: www.upperdelawarecouncil.org/pdfs/UDC_advocates_for_eel_fishery.pdf.