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COSEWIC assessment and status report on the American Eel in Canada

Special significance of the species

Historically, the American eel possessed the largest range of any fish species in the western Hemisphere, and had a dominant position by numbers and biomass in many habitats it occupied. The American eel was one of the most important freshwater fish species in commercial, recreational and Aboriginal catches in the St. Lawrence River watershed. An obvious trend of decline has been pointed out from the recruitment index in Cornwall for FEA1 (Great Lakes– Western St. Lawrence), and from upstream migration data on the Sud-Ouest River for FEA2 (Eastern St. Lawrence), components composed of large fecund females that correspond to an important part of the reproductive potential of the species.

Aboriginal people have historically fished eels throughout the Canadian range of the American eel for subsistence food purposes. Aboriginal lands located within the species’ range include the following specific claims and Indian reserves: 1) FEA1: Bay of Quinte, Akwesasne, Kanesatake, Kahnawake, Odanak, Wolinak, Lorette, Nation Huronne Wendake; 2) FEA2: Premiere Nation Malecite de Viger, Cacouna, Innue Essipit, Betsiamites, Listugui Mi’gmaq Government, Restigouche, Maria, Micmacs of Gesgapegiag, Seven Islands, Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mini-Utenam, Mingan, Natashquan; 3) FEA3: Eel River Bar First Nation, Pabineau, Eel Ground, Buctouche, Fort Folly, Acadia, Bear River, Mill Brook, Paq’tnkek First Nation, Waycobah First Nation, Wagmatcook, Chapel Island First Nation, Membertou, Lennox Island, Abegweit.

The first Europeans to allude to the importance of native American eel fisheries, specifically those associated with the St. Lawrence River system, were Jacques Cartier in 1535 and Samuel de Champlain (reviewed by Casselman 2003). Indeed, eel fishing was already a valuable and traditional activity for Aboriginal people at the time of European exploration of the St. Lawrence River watershed (Bourget 1984, cited in Robitaille et al. 2003). There is evidence of eel fisheries as early as 3,000 years ago. Native fishers fished with stone weirs on rivers, eelpots made of ash splints, and winter and summer spears (Gordon 1993, cited in Prosper 2001). Native people, including the Montagnais, fished eels during the fall season near Quebec City and along the lower St. Lawrence estuary with spears or weirs set up on the tidal flats (LeJeune 1634, cited in Robitaille et al. 2003; Casselman 2003). The Jesuits also reported that the Onondaga of the St. Lawrence Iroquois fished eels in the Finger Lakes region, south of Lake Ontario, and in tributaries of Lake Ontario, particularly in Oneida Lake on the Oswego River, in the Ottawa River (Morrison and Allumettes islands) and at Pointe-du-Buisson in the early 1900s, with two-way weirs and sluices and speared at night from canoes (Junker-Anderson 1988, cited in Casselman 2003; Pilon 1999, cited in Verreault et al. 2004; M. Courtemanche, Université de Montréal, pers. comm.). A summer spear fishery occurred in the Thousand Islands section of the upper St. Lawrence River as well (Stevens 1958, cited in Casselman 2003). Given the importance of eels for the Onondaga, an Eel Clan was formed (Tooker 1978, cited in Casselman 2003). The decline in abundance in the St. Lawrence watershed threatens the longstanding association of the St. Lawrence Iroquois with an important species and historic food resource (Casselman 2003).

In the Maritimes, the Mi’kmaq people have traditionally had a deep cultural and economic relationship with eels (Anonymous 2002). They are primarily fished for food and skin, but used for a variety of purposes as well (Anonymous 2002). Archaeological evidence indicates six fishing methods used by the Mi’kmaq: baited traps, unbaited traps, spears, hooks, nets, and weirs (Prosper 2001). However, the spear remains the fishing gear of choice reflecting a Mi’kmaq cultural practice (Anonymous 2002). American eels were a traditional and important food source for many of the Mi’kmaq people year round. The best locations to fish eels in St. George's Bay (Nova Scotia) were at Lakevale, Harver Boucher, Pomquet and Antigonish Harbour (Eales 1966, cited in Anonymous 2002). Eel fishing experiences in Pomquet Harbour have been described as extremely successful but, since the early 1990s, the American eel has become generally much less plentiful throughout the Maritime region (Anonymous 2002). The decline of the American eel threatens the longstanding Mi’kmaq relationship with the eel.

 

EXISTING PROTECTION OR OTHER STATUS DESIGNATIONS

Commercial fisheries for American eels are regulated by fishing season, number of licences, gear type, setting, minimum size limit, or quotas. Commercial fisheries are not permitted in substantial parts of the eel's Canadian range.  The fishery was closed in Ontario in 2004.  No commercial fishery targets eels reared in FEA2.  Eel fishing is not premitted in the great majority of freshwater habitat in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence area (FEA3).  The majority of freshwater and coastal eel habitat in the Scotia-Fundy area and in Newfoundland is unfished (Cairns et al. unpubl. ms.).  Regulations and licensing policies have changed through time. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, along with the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Parks and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources have agreed to develop an integrated conservation-management plan to arrest significant population decline of the American eel. A worldwide decline of eel resources, including the American eel, has been declared at the International Eel Symposium in 2003 (American Fisheries Society Annual Meeting; Dekker et al. 2003).

The American eel and its habitat are protected by the Canadian Fisheries Act. Prior to 2006 the American eel was not assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), nor was it listed by the Canadian Species at Risk Act, or by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and is being reviewed in this status report for the first time. NatureServe (2005), a network providing scientific information to help guide effective conservation action and natural resource management, listed the American eel as Secure (S5) for Canada and the United States, as a species as a whole. However, NatureServe Canada (2005) designated eels Apparently secure (S4) in Labrador and Prince Edward Island and Vulnerable (S3) in Quebec. Present statuses for the Canadian provinces and the states of the United States were last reviewed in September 1996 (Table 7). A revision of the NatureServe statuses has been recently requested by the USFWS (H. Bell, USFWS, pers. comm.). NatureServe Canada includes independent conservation data centres such as the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, the Ontario Natural Heritage Information Centre and the Centre de données sur le patrimoine naturel du Québec.

 

Table 7. Present statuses for the American eel in Canadaand of ranked and applicable states in the United States (last review in September 1996; NatureServe 2005). Bold indicates Canadian provinces and regions.
Province or StateStatus
WisconsinS1: Critically imperilled
Illinois, Kansas, West Virginia, WisconsinS2: Imperilled
Quebec, Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, VermontS3: Vulnerable
Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Indiana, Kentucky, MarylandS4: Apparently secure
Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware,
Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire,
New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia
S5: Secure
New MexicoSX: Presumed extirpated

American eel components in the United States are currently being examined on several fronts.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is undertaking a status review of the species to determine whether listing is warranted under the Endangered Species Act (USFWS 2005). Additionally, the USFWS Division of Scientific Authority is considering a proposal to list the species in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They are currently completing the information collection stage. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is also completing a stock assessment of the American Atlantic (L. Munger, ASMFC, pers. comm.). ASMFC developed the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for the American eel in order to protect and enhance the abundance of the species in both inland and territorial waters to provide sustainable subsistence, recreational and commercial fisheries by preventing overharvest of any eel life stage (USFWS 2005).