Eel

An American eel, a very flexible fish partially coiled in a dip net, measured nearly 30 inches uncoiled -- a mature female getting close to a hazard-filled return trip to Sargasso Sea.

"Fear death," wrote the Greek comic poet Philetaerus in the fourth century B.C., "for when you're dead, you cannot then eat eels."

Every year on shocking day for the Kankakee River Fishing Derby, at least one sinuous American eel is brought to the surface by Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists and volunteers with the Northern Illinois Anglers Association.

Every year, I have the same amazed reaction -- not that an eel has been caught, but that this amazing fish started life a decade or two earlier as a tiny egg in the Sargasso Sea, two million square miles of warm water between the West Indies and the Azores and dense with life-supporting sargassum seaweed.

That's something like 3,000 miles away by the route the tiny elver started, growing into an elver then an eel and making its way to the Mississippi River and north to Kankakee and beyond. They can travel short distances across land, over or around waterfalls. Several years ago, one was found crossing wet tarmac at O'Hare International Airport.

This year, one of the shocking crews brought in a specimen that was measured at just less than 30 inches by a fisheries staff member of the Illinois Natural History Survey. Onlookers were awed, as usual.

"I didn't know they were even in the river," said Richard Norton, derby vice chairman, who like chairman Ken Munjoy, crowded into take a cellphone photo. "It is a fantastic looking fish. I've never seen one before."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that females grow to 5 feet and males a couple feet less.

In 2012, three eel were shocked up, one of them about 3 feet long, which DNR biologist Bob Rung, now retired, estimated to be about 20 years old and likely to be returning soon to the Sargasso. There, it may spawn up to 20-30 million eggs with the potential for a few to complete the long and dangerous journey back here while others spread out across the east half of the U.S. and Canada, the Caribbean region and Brazil.

Eels are more abundant in the area than most people know, Rung said. Some states have moved to protect them, but Illinois still allows them to be caught by sport and commercial fishermen.

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the eels may need federal protection as a threatened or endangered species, which the agency denied in 2007. The new decision may come in September.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a federal regulatory agency, already considers it a "species at risk."

In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reported that eel numbers were "at or near historically low levels due to a combination of historical over-fishing, habitat loss, food web alterations, predation, turbine mortality, environmental changes, toxins and contaminants, and disease."

Atlantic Coast states have moved limit fishing for elvers, or glass eels, which have sold for $1,000 to $2,800 per pound in recent years, for shipment to for eel seed stock in Asian aquaculture operations, with some ending up back in U.S. restaurants as sushi.

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