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Eeling on the Delaware

It’s a wild gamble shadowed by serious risk, uncertain harvests and incredible physical demands, but Jim Fredericks wouldn’t have it any other way. Fredericks and his brother John operate an eel weir near Pond Eddy in the Upper Delaware River, and although he’s been trapped on the weir by rising water and suffered other harms, Jim hopes to harvest eels as long as he is able.

Eelers establish weirs by obtaining one of a limited number of permits from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, to whom they report their catches, which vary widely from year to year and eeler to eeler. That variability prompts Fredericks to call the whole process “a crap shoot.” Another eeler likens it to “panning for gold.”

There are fewer than 10 working the Upper Delaware River, due partly to the intense physical labor involved and the unpredictable harvests. For Fredericks, who hopes to devote more time to eeling after retirement, the hard work is a welcome alternative to keeping fit indoors at a gymnasium.

Migratory animals like the American eel provide links between ecosystems as far apart as the Upper Delaware River region and the Sargasso Sea, representing a great exchange of energy and nutrients between freshwater and marine ecosystems. Although the American eel lives for up to 20 years in our region’s waters, its life begins—and ends—in the murky depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Eels are “catadromous” fish, which means they are born in saltwater, but migrate to fresh water, where they spend their lives before returning to spawn in the sea.

An eel’s life begins as an egg that develops into larvae called leptocephali. Shaped like willow leaves, the larvae drift for nine to 12 months before entering coastal waters. They metamorphose into transparent glass-like eels, then migrate in autumn along the Atlantic Coast, where they develop pigment and enter the elver stage. Elvers migrate upstream, overcoming obstacles such as dams, falls, ditches and rapids to remain in fresh or brackish waters such as rivers, streams, estuaries and lakes.

Locally, eels run most heavily during late September and early October, especially around the new moon. Though improving, research on eel populations and the factors affecting them has been lacking. While eel populations are considered at risk in some areas due to harvest pressure, blockage of migration routes and habitat loss, populations in the Delaware River are currently deemed to be healthy.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
An American eel crosses the wooden slats of the trap. Eels look like snakes, but are actually fish with mucous-producing skin that does not possess scales. Mature eels average four feet in length for females and two feet for males. They feed on fish, crustaceans, worms, insects and mollusks and tear food they can’t swallow whole into pieces by grasping the flesh and spinning as fast as 14 rotations per second. Eels are not harmful and don’t sting, but if provoked, may bite in self-defense. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Eeler Jim Fredericks hoists part of his catch. Eels enter the central portion of the weir at left, mount the wooden slats and pass onto the lower platform where Fredericks stands. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Fredericks prepares to inspect the holding pen. The rock walls must be reconstructed every year, a labor-intensive process referred to as “throwing stone.” Eelers must remove the entire wooden portion of the weir before year’s end and rebuild it again the following year. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Weirs are constructed to trap eels as they migrate. They consist of V-shaped rock walls opening upstream, which harness a portion of the river, forcing the water to flow through a trap at the tip of the “V.” The walls are roughly 30 feet long, five feet wide and four feet high. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Eels cross the wooden slats and enter this opening into the holding pen. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
An eel emerges from the pipe into the holding pen. (Click for larger version)