September, 2005 issue of Signals from TARSUS
Author's note: When I first started thinking about natural history in Ransome's
life and books, I gave the working title, "Totem Animals" to my thoughts about
title animals and animals that drive the stories. In this issue we have a real
totem, the carved eel in Secret Water. The living fish appears only momentarily
there, but eels are an important part of the plot of The Big Six.
"You see the eel is the totem of the Children of the Eel. That's the name of the
tribe. But it's an awful secret." Secret Water
Anguilla Anguilla (Europe)
Anguilla rostra (America)
European and American eels look just alike, and the handsome silver eel of the
Secret Water totem could be either species. Don carved and painted his
eel well: you can see the pectoral fin standing stiffly out near the face, and
the long wraparound fin that runs down the back, around the tail and halfway up
the ventral side. The unhappy eel is flattening the fin down onto her back (an
eel this big is sure to be a female), and who can blame her? It shows as a lighter,
segmented line in the picture. The Anguillas are the freshwater eels, and until
the early 20th century their lives were as big a secret to biologists as those
of the Children of the Eel were to the Missionaries.
To many Americans, especially those of us who live in the west where there are
no freshwater eels, an "eel" is a Lamprey. But Lampreys are Agnathans (Greek,
no jaw), the lowest fish on the evolutionary scale, and eels are Osteichthyes
(Greek, bone + fish), the most advanced. Lampreys don't have skeletons –
just a rod of cartilage to support the body, and, as you might guess from the name,
they don't have jaws. If you were to catch a lamprey, you would know it by the
row of seven round stomata, openings over the gills, on the side. Adults are
parasitic on other fish, and if you turned your lamprey over you would see a
round mouth that attaches the lamprey to its victim, and rasp-like teeth that
grate away the host's flesh. When the canals connecting the Great Lakes to the
Atlantic ocean were built, Sea Lampreys infested the lakes and nearly destroyed
their commercial fisheries, until larvicides (poisons specific to lamprey larvae),
were developed. Lampreys were an important food for some American Indian tribes,
and are considered a delicacy in Europe: the few caught commercially are exported.
Congers and morays are in the family Anguillidae, like our Totem eel, but
they are sea eels, living all their lives in salt water. Conger eels were fished
commercially and prized for their rich gelatinous meat until well into the twentieth
Harry the eeler says eels are born in the mud and live in the mud, and scoffs
when Tom Dudgeon tries to tell what he's learned in school: that the eels in
Harry's live box were born far away in the Sargasso sea and that those which
escape nets and spears will return there to spawn.
Tom is right, but this was new knowledge when The Big Six was written. It
had been less than thirty years since the eel life history began to be worked
out. In 1908, Italian biologists proved that a quite un-eel-like fishlet called
Leptocephalus brevirostrus ("thinhead shortsnout") was the larva, the
first stage after hatching, of the eel. Leptocephali collected off the coast of
Sicily were the key that finally unlocked the mystery of the eel, for its hatching
grounds were found not by tracking adult eels out to sea but by following the
paths of the larvae backward. In 1911, only three years after L. brevirostris
was identified as a larval eel, one was netted off the Faeroes, and Johannes
Schmidt, a biologist on the expedition that netted it, saw how important it was
that a leptocephalus had been found hundreds of miles from the shores of Europe.
For the next several years Schmidt followed the larvae backward along their paths,
always looking for the next smaller form. The hunt was disrupted by World War I
and by shipwreck and fire, but finally, in 1926 – around the time when Tom
Dudgeon was born – Schmidt netted the smallest larvae of all, three millimeters
(about two tenths of an inch) long, no bigger than fingernail parings,
scarcely larger than eel eggs.
Schmidt caught these tiniest of leptocephali in the curious sea within a sea called
the Sargasso, a two million acre lens of water off the coast of Bermuda, contained
and raised by slowly moving currents rather than by solid land. The slowly swirling
boundary currents raise the Sargasso as much as nine meters above the surrounding
waters, and within the lens the water is several degrees warmer and several parts
per thousand saltier than the water of the Atlantic Ocean just outside and below it.
The Sargasso is a clear, oligotrophic sea (Greek: oligo<, few, troph-,
nutrients), with hardly any large aquatic life-forms to eat the eels' eggs or the
tiny, passively floating leptocephali, though there is plenty of microscopic life
for them to feed on.
The hatchlings are leaf shaped, flat and transparent, with a few sharp teeth and
a big dark eye, and in two years, by the time they reach European shores, they
will have grown to about 7.5 centimeters long (almost three inches). Now they
begin a metamorphosis as dramatic, in its way, as that of caterpillar to butterfly.
They shorten. They lose up to 90% of their weight. Their sharp teeth disappear.
From a flat fish-shaped creature they become something like a swimming string.
They are still transparent, so transparent that you can see their hearts beating,
and are now called glass eels. As the glass eels come to fresher water near the
river mouths they darken to become more recognisably eel-like elvers.
The elvers transform again, into yellow eels with bronze or yellow-brown backs and
creamy buff bellies – a countershading that helps make them invisible in
murky summer water or in mud. The females move up the estuaries to rivers, streams,
lakes, and ponds, while most males hang about the river mouths, carried in and
out by the tides. Inland, eels slither across pastures and roads to get to water
and even climb streamside trees, dropping into the water from the branches.
Eels are opportunistic feeders, like most very successful species, and will eat
any kind of animal they can catch, as long as it's fresh. Eels are not generally
fast enough to catch game fish and biologists don't see eels as any kind of threat
to salmon or trout fisheries, though gamekeepers may. Even large eels feed mostly
on invertebrates, with whatever small fish they can catch. One fish that eels can
catch is other eels, and yellow eels have been caught with 50 and more elvers in
their stomachs, harvested from the great masses of elvers moving upstream.
There will be one last inward and outward metamorphosis in fresh water. After the
yellow eels feed and grow for 10 to 20 years or more, ribbonlike ruffly gonads
(egg or sperm-producing organs) begin to develop, the body fluids become less salty,
and the digestive system atrophies: the eels will never eat again. They change
color one last time, to the handsome silver and black of Ransome's drawings, and
the body becomes firmer as the muscles are packed with fat. They are now silver
eels, and migrate toward the sea, to disappear into its waters forever. Over all
the recorded centuries, only a dozen or so eels have been caught at sea, and even
today none have been tracked to the Sargasso. In 1898, an adult eel was collected
from the stomach of a sperm whale, which tells us no more than that the eel was
well out in the Mid-Atlantic and many meters below the surface, because that is
where sperm whales feed. That specimen remains the only eel to be collected from
the open sea. A handful of adults have been caught off the shores of Britain,
metamorphosed yet again, and in ways that suggest they are deep-sea swimmers.
The eye has become very large, the fan-shaped pectoral fins are now pointed like
those of other fast-swimming ocean fish, and the color is a uniform bronze.
"The old man talked of eels... 'We'll have a look at them old eels,' he said...
The boat stopped, and the old man reached down with a pole that had a hook on
the end of it." The Big Six
Surely no fish have ever been harvested in so many places, in so many ways and at
so many sizes as eels. Eels were caught in estuaries and rivers, in streams and
lakes and farm ponds, in brackish water and fresh. Though eels aren't mentioned
in the books set in the Lake Country, there were enough eels there to support a
small commercial fishery. Elsewhere, mudbanks where yellow eels lounged through
hot summer days or lay buried in winter torpor were so thick with eels that they
were harvested just by spearing at random into the mud. They were trapped in baited
cages of withy or netting, or gathered by weirs (fish fences across a stream)
and hand-netted. Silvers migrating downstream were caught in setts like Old
Harry's: drift nets set in a "V" to guide the eels into tubular, hooped fyke nets.
Many-hooked lines like Don's night lines (trot-lines, to Americans) caught eels
by dozens, and "babs" of fine yarn wound into a ball, with no hooks at all, caught
them by the teeth. Commercial fishermen found eels in their nets and on their
long-lines and swore, and cut them loose, hooks and all; sport fishermen caught
eels by accident and swore, and cut them loose; and fishermen looking for dinner
caught them and delighted, for eel is one of the richest and tastiest of all fish.
Farewell and Adieu, Anguilla Anguilla
In time of the Swallows and Amazons there were still so many eels that no amount
of harvesting made a dent in their numbers. Seemingly unending streams of eels
returned from the ocean to be caught: tiny glass eels migrating upstream in spring,
yellow eels going nowhere in particular at any time, and finally, mature silver
eels on their way to the sea in the fall. There should have been enough eels
for everyone, for forever.
Then the world changed. Dams were built, more than 15,000 of them across the rivers
of the Eastern United States where young eels once swam upstream to feeding grounds
and mature eels migrated downstream to the sea. The turbines of 1100 hydroelectric
dams chop up eels just as efficiently as they chop up migrating salmon. By law,
any of several agencies have the power to require bypasses around dams so that
eels and other fish can get by, but hardly any bypasses have been built. Very
few young eels swim and slither upstream past the dams, and very few adults
slither or swim down.
Commander Walker marooned the S&A's on Secret Water because he was called
away to deal with the beginnings of the Second World War. Paradoxically, the war
brought a new prosperity to a rebuilt Japan and eventually to China, countries
where eels are a special delicacy. More people could buy eels than there were
eels to buy. Japan and China have their own freshwater species, and the Japanese
learned to farm them, but there still weren't enough eels. Because eel eggs won't
hatch in artificial environments, the only way to farm eels is to catch elvers
and glass eels and feed them to size, and there weren't enough in Asia. Japanese
eel farms began buying elvers from Europe, and started a feeding frenzy among
fishermen. Prices for glass eels and elvers skyrocketed. Modern nets could catch
almost every tiny glass eel and elver, and did, leaving hardly any to mature upstream.
When live elvers and eels began to be shipped around the world, eel parasites and
diseases travelled with them and are now affecting both Western and Far Eastern
populations. Eel numbers were dwindling before the elver boom, but with almost
no elvers escaping dams, nets, and disease to mature, there are almost no young
eels to replace the adults when they finally migrate to sea. European eel
fisheries have collapsed and Anguilla anguilla is on the verge of extinction.
ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, has now (June 2005)
recommended that all eel fishing in Europe be halted. Some biologists fear that
European Eel populations have already declined beyond recovery, but if not,
the moratorium could save the species.
Meanwhile, the United States and Canada continue to dam rivers and to harvest
eels and elvers for eel farms, for bait, and for European tables, so that
fewer and fewer American Eels reach the Sargasso to spawn. It has taken many
years to fish out existing adult populations, because eels are so long-lived
and so slow to mature, but it's now clear that almost all of the silver eels
migrating downstream are the last remnants of aging populations, with hardly
any young eels getting past the dams to replace them. If blocking of streams
and unregulated harvesting aren't corrected, and soon, our eel too could become
extinct. Action has been slow in coming, but finally, in late 2005, the United
States Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to petition the Environmental
Protection Agency to list the American eel as a threatened species, and Canada
is also taking steps to protect eels. If Anguilla rostrata is granted threatened
status and if we can act quickly enough, if we can put dam bypasses in place so
that eels can get to their upstream feeding grounds and migrate back down,
if we can curtail harvests so that enough adult eels to maintain the species
reach the Sargasso Sea and spawn, our eel populations may recover and we may
not have to say that final farewell after all.
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