The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a very common fish in our local waters. It can be found in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. It can be found in brackish waters. On occasion it can even be found traveling over land on rainy nights as it heads to a new body of water.

The American eel is long, growing to about five feet in length, which is why some people believe it is a snake. But eels, being fish, breathe through gills and have fins. The American eel’s lower jaw protrudes slightly and its small scales are deeply embedded in its skin. Its coloration can vary, from gray-brown to yellowish-brown, with a pale belly.

American eels lead very interesting lives. Unlike salmon and shad (anadromous fish), which migrate from salt water to fresh water to spawn, the American eel does the reverse, migrating from fresh water to salt water to spawn. It is a “catadromous” fish.

It is believed that once adult eels reach full maturity (in an average of ten years) they swim from their fresh water homes in eastern North America and the Caribbean to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. (The Sargasso Sea is an area in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda that is covered with the seaweed, sargassum.) Each female lays millions of eggs and then dies. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae that are leaf-shaped. They drift in the current the 1,000 miles or so to our coastal waters where they grow into miniature eels, known as “elvers.” The elvers enter fresh water rivers and streams, the males staying in the brackish waters near the coast. The females are usually the ones found further upstream and in inland ponds. An amazing feat to say the least!

American eel populations have been in decline for almost twenty years. Migratory eels demonstrate how important water quality and aquatic habitat protection are, both locally and globally.