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There’s something slippery in the Susquehanna

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File In this 2015 file photo, baby eels, known as elvers, swim in a plastic bag at a buyer's holding facility in Portland, Maine.

LOCK HAVEN — Snake? Fish? Somehow seeming both and neither, eels — specifically the American Eel — are returning, slowly, to the Susquehanna River. But they aren’t doing it alone.

Recently, Lock Haven residents spotted Pa. Fish and Boat Commission agents restocking eels into the river, by use of a truck carrying a special transport container.

The PFBC, along with others, are interested in a return of the American Eel for several reasons.

First, a little about the American Eel:

According to the PFBC website, the American Eel is the only North American “catadromous” fish — a fish which spawns in saltwater, but then comes to fresh water to live out their lives. This is somewhat unusual — there are multiple examples of North American fish which spawn in fresh water and then go to live in the ocean, known as “anadromous” fish, perhaps most notably the Salmon.

In popular culture, eels are primarily known by their association with electricity — however, this is a misconception. So-called electric eels are in fact not even eels, but instead belong to a tropical family called the Knifefish.

American Eels are described on the PFBC website as being possessed of scales so fine and tiny that they appear scaleless; as generally reaching two or three feet in length in Pennsylvania (although a note is presented that it is possible, if rare, for them to breach four feet and exceed seven pounds); as having a long, thin dorsal fin along much of the length of its back; and notably as having pectoral fins, which can be used to distinguish an eel from a Lamprey.

Eels spawn primarily in the Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda, and split their migratory paths between north, for American Eels, and east, for European Eels. Young eels, known as elvers, enter rivers from the ocean, and while males tend to stay near the open water, females will relentlessly swim upstream.

Thus, they come to the Susquehanna, along with many other regional rivers and tributaries.

There are many historical anecdotes referring to the presence of Eels in the Susquehanna, although they cease some years ago as hydroelectric dams, including the Conowingo, Holtwood, and Safe Harbor Dams in Maryland, were installed just outside the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, which blocked the elvers, along with other young fish, from reaching Pennsylvania’s upstream waters.

PFBC notes that through the early 1900s, “Eels supported an intense commercial fishery in the Susquehanna and Delaware River systems.” As an example, PFBC says “in 1912, called an off year, 50,000 eels weighing more than a combined 44,000 pounds were caught in Pennsylvania.”

All three dams have completed the installation of fish lifts, which are essentially artificial streams that allow for young fish to swim upstream around dams and other manmade obstacles.

These fish lifts, however, while an aid, have not resulted in the restorative impact that environmentalists were hoping for. As such, fish stockings by the PFBC and others continue in an effort to repopulate these species in Pennsylvania.

Most of the elvers being added to the Susquehanna are caught near Conowingo Dam and then brought upstream, where they are released at various spots, including Lock Haven. As American Eels have an average lifespan of 10-25 years, they will be here for years to come.

Eels provide a number of substantial benefits to the ecosystem — most notably by serving as a host species for the larva of freshwater mussels, another piece of the Susquehanna ecosystem that has been missing for many years. Eels also serve as notable predators in the river food chain, feeding primarily on insects, frogs, and small fish.

Nor are eels bereft of benefits for outdoorsmen, either. A quick Internet search turns up many recipes for eels — particularly smoked — and eels supposedly provide quite a challenge of a catch for fishermen.

So the next time something serpentine is spotted in the Susquehanna, fear not! It may be but a friendly eel, enjoying a home it has not known for generations.

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