ALBANY — All along the Hudson River Estuary, volunteers are donning waders and venturing into tributary streams to participate in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) 12th annual research and monitoring project on migrating juvenile American eels, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos announced.
“DEC’s American Eel Research project connects students and communities with nature while gathering valuable research data for the future study of this species and its critical role in our ecosystem,” said Commissioner Seggos. “Citizen-based research and community involvement are indispensable in helping to learn about these unique animals and guide our conservation and stewardship.”
The eel monitoring project was initiated by DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program and Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve to gather data to guide multi-state management plans for eel conservation. The project directly involves students and volunteers with scientific design and field methodology.
Eel collection takes place at most sites daily from mid-March through mid-May. In the 11 years since the project began, volunteers have caught, counted, and released nearly 700,000 juvenile eels into upstream habitat. Each spring, more than 600 volunteers from nearly 40 schools and organizations monitor glass eels at 13 Hudson River sites from New York Harbor to the Capital Region.
Coastal states from Florida to Maine monitor the young-of-the-year migrations of American eels, using the protocols of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. American eels (Anguilla rostrata) have one of the most unusual life cycles of any fish. Born in the Sargasso Sea north of Puerto Rico, and every spring these eels arrive in estuaries like the Hudson River as translucent, two-inch long “glass eels.” As part of the research project, volunteers and students check a 10-foot cone-shaped fyke net designed to catch this small species. Researchers then count and release the glass eels back into the water and record environmental data on temperature and tides. Most of the eels are released above dams, waterfalls, and other barriers so that they have better access to habitat. Eels will live in freshwater rivers and streams for up to 30 years before returning to the sea to spawn.
Volunteers include students, watershed groups, environmental professionals, and community residents trained in basic protocols to assure useful data is collected. Classroom visits by DEC educators help bring the project alive to thousands of students. The program grew partly because eels are a strangely charismatic species with an unusual life story, and partly because people are drawn to the connections between their neighborhoods and their waterways, from urban streams to rural creeks.