Eel-tastic

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Eel-tastic

From Animal Place
May 2009

There is a chapter in Jeffrey Masson's most recent book The Face On Your Plate: The Truth About Food on aquaculture (a powerful chapter). Within it is a bit about eels and, to be honest, it left me incredibly curious about these (to me) mysterious creatures.

Here's an excerpt:

The female breeds only once in her life, which may not be until she is sixty years old. To do so she makes her way to the ocean, traveling at night, and even crossing land. When she reaches the sea, she swims perhaps 3,600 miles to the place in the Pacific Ocean where she was originally hatched. Once she reaches her destination, she lays up to 20 million eggs.

There are more than 500 species of eel. All are fish but have a more snake-like appearance. The American eel is born in the Sargasso Sea along with millions of her brothers and sisters. When she's born from an egg her mother and father died to produce, she will be transparent, aptly called a "glass" eel. As she matures, she will lose her transparency and develop into a sleek, brown or olive skinned animal who glides effortlessly through the water. American eels can move from the ocean to freshwater rivers and estuaries. They can live a hundred years. A hundred years! Eels reach sexual maturity between the ages of seven and thirty but may not lay eggs or fertilize them until they are much older, sometimes as old as seventy. One female eel can lay up to 30 million eggs. Amazing.

Eels can breathe through their skin, allowing them to traverse land. In the water, they rely on gills, like other fish to breathe. And if the American eel left her ocean home in favor of freshwater streams, she undergoes an amazing metamorphosis for her return back to the ocean. She will increase her fat reserves dramatically - she will not eat during her migration and her gut will begin to destroy itself. She will turn a silvery white, earning her the name "silver eel". Her eyes will double in size and become more sensitive to the deep blue waters of the ocean. She will become more buoyant through an increase in the number of swim bladder blood vessels.

The American eel's cousin, the European eel, will also travel to the Sargasso Sea to lay and fertilize their eggs. And getting to the Sargasso Sea is no easy task - the European eel will take three years to do so.

Much about eels remain a mystery. The eel's lifestyle is still barely understood, though the tragic reality is that their populations have declined dramatically. The european eel's numbers have dropped by 90%, the Japanese eel by 80%. The American eel, though not considered an endangered species, is also suffering. Much of their habitat has been destroyed by dams and mature eels are being killed by the turbines of hydropower plants. Aquaculture has increased the eels exposure to lice that can damage their swim bladder, an organ of utmost importance for migration back to their spawning site.

We know eels can feel pain, all fish can. They have been known to remember people and interact positively with scuba divers and swimmers. There is so much about them that we don't know, they are part of a world we exploit so easily but are egregiously unfamiliar with.

Thousands upon thousands of eels are killed annually and their deaths are not the stuff of bedtime stories. A common method of slaughtering eels starts with a knife-cut to the throat while the animal is fully conscious. At least one study shows that brain activity still occurs and that suffering may be prolonged with this method of slaughter. Another method of slaughter is "desliming" or dessication, where the eel is submerged in dry salt and then gutted. It's an incredibly painful kill-method and can take several long moments before the eels is finally dead.

What a sad, unfair end for such a fascinating creature. Though they are not familiar like other mammals, they are by no means animals unworthy of our compassion and respect. They are not mindless automatons but feeling, thinking beings who endure incredible physical stresses throughout their life for that one, single moment of creating new life. You can help them and their oceans by eating vegan, which is a sustainable dietary choice that is compassionate and healthy as well.

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