Protecting the Vanishing American Eel

The American eel is in danger of extinction in the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River part of its range (waters are co-managed by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.)


Factors contributing to this decline include eel harvest, death in hydro turbines, barriers to migration routes (e.g. dams) and changing environmental and climatic conditions.


The American eel is a very unusual species:


  • there is only one spawning location (in the Atlantic Ocean)
  • eel larvae are distributed by ocean currents along the eastern coast of North Americayoung eel enter fresh waters (such as the St. Lawrence River) where they grow for up to 25 years
  • mature eels migrate back to the ocean to spawn and die, and
  • American eel is often confused with lamprey because of its appearance. In fact, the lamprey is not an eel but a parasite fish that preys on other large-bodied fish.


Ontario commercial eel harvests peaked at over 500,000 lbs in 1978. Harvests between 1984 and 1993 remained stable (between 228,000 and 273,000 lbs per year.) Since 1993, eel harvests have declined precipitously to less than 30,000 lbs in 2003 with a landed value of less than $75,000.


Ontario is protecting American eel by:


  • cancelling the commercial fishing quota for 2004 and for the foreseeable future
  • closing the eel sport fishery, and
  • working with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to improve safe eel passage across hydro dams on the St. Lawrence River.


Other actions to protect eel:


  • Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO,) Ontario, Quebec and the eastern provinces are working to develop a co-ordinated action plan to protect eels.
  • Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is leading an inter-state initiative to protect the species, and the Atlantic coastal states are seeking designation of American eel under the US Endangered Species Act.
  • An eel ladder was installed at the R.H. Saunders Hydroelectric Dam in Cornwall in 1974 by MNR and OPG to assist with the migration of eel upstream of the dam.
  • Since 1998, the number of young eel migrating up the eel ladder located at the R. H. Saunders Hydro Generating Dam has declined from more than one million fish per year in the early 1980s to fewer than 3,500 per year.
  • MNR is working with OPG to examine ways to make a safer passage for eels during migration.