Slip Into The Secret Life of Eels In his new book Eels, writer James Prosek describes the life history and cultural significance of this slimy, snake-like and often misunderstood fish, introducing the reader to an eel fisherman on the Delaware River and to the myths of the Maori of New Zealand along the way.

Slip Into The Secret Life of Eels

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JOE PALCA, host:

Next, we're on to eels: the slippery, slimy and, some would say, misunderstood fish. That's right, fish, even though they are more they are, in fact, more closely related to trout than snakes.

Americans still seem to either fear or loathe eels. Their fantastic migration story and tasty flesh hasn't done much to elevate the eel's status here. But in other countries, eels are celebrated. There are mythic tales of eels among the Maori in New Zealand and entire restaurants dedicated to eel eating in Japan.

And if you're wondering how I know that, it's because I read the book and not just any book but James Prosek's book. It's called "Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish." I'm sorry. I didn't say that very well. I'd do better later.

Mr. JAMES PROSEK (Author, "Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso Sea, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish"): (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: He joins me here in the studio, also in New York. Thanks for coming in today.

Mr. PROSEK: Thanks so much for having me.

PALCA: So eels, I mean, an entire book on eels. Well, I suppose there have been other topics to get that kind of treatment. But what brought you to this?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, I spent a lot of time in freshwater rivers and other freshwater ecosystems as a kid because I loved fishing, in particular fly-fishing. And I fell in love with trout at an early age. And I make part of my living as a painter, so I do watercolor paintings of trout.

My first book was a book of trout - watercolors of the trout of North America. And many people would say, well, why the eel? You know, the trout is more conventionally beautiful, and the eel is sort of brown and not very diverse from species to species in terms of coloration and form but - I mean, initially, the eel was something my friends and I caught by accident on the hook when we were fishing for other things.

You know, they were icky and slimy, and our priority was really just to get them off the hook because we didn't know what to do with them. And you can't really hold them, so we treated them - I regret to say - kind of brutally. We'd smack them on the bank and - just to get our hooks back.

But maybe around, you know, 10, 12 years old, I started to learn a little bit about their life history, and that it's - the eels that we were catching in these farm ponds in southwestern Connecticut where I grew up were born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not just 10 miles off the coast, but, you know, 1,500, 2,000 miles off the coast, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and that nobody had ever witnessed them spawning. And I think I was overcome just by this incredible life history, and then the project involved into - evolved into other things.

PALCA: Where were you doing your fishing as a kid?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, I grew up in a town called Easton, Connecticut, where I still live, which is in the southwest. And, you know, we would catch them in the Housatonic River, which is one of our main rivers there.

PALCA: So how does an eel get from the Housatonic River to the Sargasso Sea?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, it was born in the middle of the Sargasso, which is the western part of this subtropical gyre, they call it. It's a clockwise spinning eddy in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between ocean currents, and they're born there. They hatch as these little leaf-shaped larva, and they start drifting toward the coasts in the prevailing currents. And then at some point, they exit the Gulf Stream and start to spread their numbers, you know, potentially hundreds of millions of baby eels up the - via the freshwater rivers of the East Coast in North America. And then after spending 15 to 30 years in the freshwater, they return back to the ocean to reproduce. It's pretty remarkable.

PALCA: We're talking with James Prosek about his new book on eels. I'm Joe Palca, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

So give us a sense of how many different kinds of eels there are.

Mr. PROSEK: Well, the eels that I wrote the book about we call freshwater eels. Most of these eels, technically, of the genus Anguilla, and our species is rostrata. The European eel is Anguilla anguilla. Our - you know, they spend their adult lives in freshwater and reproduce in the ocean. There's other types of eels, obviously, moray eels, conger eels, that spend their lives completely in the ocean, but this is really the only fish in the world that reproduces in the middle of an ocean and spends its adult life in freshwater.

It's the opposite migration of, like, the salmon, which spawns in freshwater and lives its adult life in the sea. That's called an anadromous fish, and the eel is one of the few catadromous fishes, but it's the only one that travels so far. And there's 14 species of eels like the North American eel that reproduce in other oceans around the world. Like in New Zealand, they have two species of freshwater eels, and Australia and South Africa, Japan and China.

PALCA: Okay, well, if you have questions about eels, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And your questions can be far ranging and on a variety of topics, not just the science of eels because one of the things that James Prosek's book goes into is some of the mythology that surrounds eels.

And that's the other thing I wanted to ask you about. I mean, what's the interest there?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, the project that I started 11 years ago, this book, began, as I said, with an interest in the life history of the eel and this fascinating migration, but at some point after I had already had a contract to do the book and had proposed it, a friend of mine who'd spent - had lived in New Zealand for 15 years and was married to a Maori woman, a native Polynesian, and knew about the culture of the Polynesian people said, hey, mate, do you know about the sacred eels...

PALCA: And they do usually throw that mate part, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PROSEK: Do you know about the sacred eels in New Zealand? And I said no. I didn't know there were eels in New Zealand. Although, thinking back on it, I had heard rumors from trout fishermen fishing for introduced trout in New Zealand that occasionally they'd catch a four-, five-pound trout and this giant freshwater eel would come out from under a dark ledge and eat the fish because in New Zealand, their freshwater eels get very large.

They have the largest freshwater eels in the world. They can grow up to seven, eight feet long and weigh over 80 pounds, and they can live 104 years. That's the oldest they've aged them from the otolith, a little stone in the inner ear.

And the Maori people there - for the Maori, the eel is one of the most important fish in their nature of faith-based, you know, religion, and so I wanted to investigate that. And that was sort of the beginning of my investigations in the Pacific islands. They - you know, the snake - that minimal-shaped creature is - plays an important role in world mythology from the Garden of Eden to all kinds of other stories as a monster, seducer and a guardian. So they think that the basic stories where the snake plays that role trickled down from India into Indonesia as people migrated into the islands. And because there's - a lot of the Pacific islands are devoid of snakes, the eel was the closest available counterpart and plays that role, kind of, also as an erotic symbol in a lot of the mythology. You know, it's may not be appropriate for some listeners, but you can imagine what it...

PALCA: Yeah. No, it does have a familiar shape. Well, we have to take a break, but we're talking with James Prosek. He's an artist and a writer. His new book is titled "Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso Sea, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish." We're inviting you to join us in this conversation. All you have to do is give us a call, 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. You might also, if you have a chance, zoom over to the website, You can actually see some pictures and a video of the eels that we're talking about today. So stay with us, we're going to take a short break.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about eels. And my guest is James Prosek. He's an artist and writer, and he's written a new book called "Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso Sea, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish."

So let's talk a little with some of our listeners. And let's first go to Michelle(ph) in California. Welcome to the show, Michelle.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi. Though my question was, how did they first discover that the life cycle of these eels, how they start in the ocean and then end up in the rivers?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, for centuries, they didn't know and there were all kinds of speculations about how eels reproduce. And before the 18th century, a lot of natural history was, sort of, fake natural history. And people like Isaac Walton who wrote "The Compleat Angler" in 1653 wrote things like eels generated from horsehairs that fell into puddles of dew certain at a certain time in May when the sun was hitting at a certain angle, you know? Or even Linnaeus, you know, the famous Swedish guy who created our modern system of taxonomy, thought that eels were viviparous or created live young. That was in, you know, the 18th century.

It wasn't until originally, you know, the as I mentioned before, the eel hatches into a little leaf-shaped larva. And that was originally that larvae, because it doesn't really look like an eel, was originally classified as a separate species of fish called Leptocephalus brevirostris. So it wasn't until the 1920s actually that this Danish oceanographer, Johannes Schmidt, made the connection between this fish that was called Leptocephalus brevirostris and the adult eel.

And he was on these oceangoing vessels where they were catching these little fish larva out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And these Italian biologists in the 1890s had seen some intermediate fish between the larva and the adult eel or the baby eels that are more, sort of, less willow-leaf shaped than more eel shaped.

So based on that research that these Italian guys had done, this guy Johannes Schmidt said, well, hey, these little things floating in the middle of the ocean are actually the larvae of the European eel. And based on vertebra accounts and different things, he was able to prove that. But it wasn't really known until the early 20th century.

PALCA: Cool. Michelle, does that answer your question?

MICHELLE: It does. Thanks.

PALCA: All right. Thank you very much. Let's go now to let's see, Jack(ph) in Westport, Connecticut - or is it Westport, Massachusetts?

JACK (Caller): Hi, there. It is Westport, Mass. How are you, Joe?

PALCA: Good.


PALCA: Great.

JACK: Listen, a quick question for your guest. In my youth, we in the Westport River, we had it seemed like hundreds of eels and they were always underfoot and they'd up in your minnow trap and they were everywhere and it was great. And now it seems to me - I'm still on the river and there are virtually none. I mean, I never see them. I never find them.

Did we overfish them? Can we get them back? Or what does your guest know about the, you know, the penetration of ecosystems and how we've am I missing something here?

PALCA: No, no. Great question. Go ahead, James.

Mr. PROSEK: Unfortunately, we're witnessing a crash of populations of all 14 eel species around the world, these catadromous, oceangoing long-migrating eels. And they're not exactly sure what's causing it. But in Europe, they've observed that as much as a 99 percent drop in the population of eels, and it's happening in North America too. There's actually, in the book, a chapter about these two brothers from eastern Massachusetts who tried to list the eels as an endangered species, Doug and Tim Watts. And you can find a lot on the Web about their work. They have a website.

They think that one of the main reasons is hydropower dams - is that eels migrate back to the ocean in the fall, the ones that are ready to reproduce. And unfortunately, they run when the rivers are in flood, taking advantage of the rain from the hurricane season and they're trying to take the path of least resistance down the rivers back to the ocean and they expend as little energy as possible.

And when they encounter hydropower dam, they feel the pull from these penstock tubes that bring the water to the turbines. And the power companies haven't figured out a way to keep them from going down these tubes into the turbines. And you can imagine a long, skinny fish has trouble getting through a turbine. It's like, you know, for a human sticking your hand in the window fan, they just get chopped up. Or even if they get nicked, you know, if they're even wounded a little bit, it really hinders them on a thousands-of-mile journey. So that's one thing.

But the reality is it's probably cumulative effects from many things pollution, overfishing. A lot of our eels were going to Asia in the '90s. They're still being overfished in different parts of the world. There's a huge multibillion dollar industry driven by Japan's, sort of, lust for their slightly fatty flesh. But it can't be blamed just on overfishing.

In North America, the predominant fishery for eels is for bait for straight bait. So it's they're not taking a huge amount in the States.

But I would say hydro dams and possibly even global warming which is possibly changing ocean currents and confounding eels on their migrations. Because they're following these currents as if they were braids of rivers in the ocean, but possibly also disease and parasites, but really, they don't quite know. But there is a drop happening.

PALCA: Okay, Jack. Thanks very much for that question.

JACK: Mm-hmm.

PALCA: Okay. And speak just a moment ago, I mentioned that there is a videotape on the SCIENCE FRIDAY website. And you should go have a look at it. And joining us now is the producer of that videotape, Flora Lichtman, SCIENCE FRIDAY'S very own multimedia editor. Thanks for coming in Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Joe. Hi, James.

Mr. PROSEK: Hey, Flora.

PALCA: So you were up there tell us how this video came to be, because it focuses on something that's in the book.

LICHTMAN: Yes. So the let me set the scene for you. We headed to the Western Catskills on the Delaware River. And there's this guy, Ray Turner, who figures prominently in James's book, and he's an eel fisherman. And the way he fishes is something like I had never seen before. Every single year, he piles tons of rocks to sort of funnel the Delaware River into this wooden trap. But I think James probably knows more about this than I do. But the style of fishing is a Native American tradition, right?

Mr. PROSEK: Yeah. These two big stonewalls that form a V, basically, in the river and the trap is at the vortex is all really set up for one in the fall when the eels migrate, you know. And they come down en mass down the river. So, in two nights, he can catch as many as 2,000 fish. But they've been you know, this traditional weir fishery hasn't really changed in thousands of years. Apparently, have evidence of people fishing the same way 5,000 years ago in Connecticut and Maine.

LICHTMAN: So we were there to see this eel weir and how it works, and talk with Ray Turner. And see actually how he smokes the eel, which...

PALCA: I would imagine if they're long and slimy, they're hard to light.

Mr. PROSEK: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: So, with the assistance here of the all right. Okay.

LICHTMAN: There's some change...

PALCA: So he's doing this for the purpose of he's not fishing for fun - oh, well, fun. I guess there's some fun involved. But he's fishing in order to make a product that he sells.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. He sells that along with other things that he smokes on premises.

PALCA: Well, Flora was nice enough to bring down some of his smoked eel products here, which if you're in the studio at the moment, you'd know that there is an extremely identifiable oh, I'm sorry. It was Annette Heist who brought the eel for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Sorry. I got a message that I was supposed to explain that. Anyway, the whole studio is what I would call redolent of eel and...

Mr. PROSEK: It smells good.

PALCA: It smells really good.

Mr. PROSEK: If you like smoked fish.

PALCA: So I'm going to take a piece. What particular kind of eel is this?

Mr. PROSEK: This is the east branch of the Delaware River eel, so it should have some flavor imparted from the things it was eating during its lifetime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: And you said he smokes them. How does that process go?

LICHTMAN: You know, this is one of the interesting parts for me. I asked Ray, you know, what the process was after he gets the eels. And he said, actually, that just smoking them right out of the river wouldn't taste that good. He was like, if you want to know what fish out of this river tastes like, go lick a rock in it. It's disgusting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So he actually puts them in well water for a couple of weeks and they seem to taste better after. And then, you know, they are frozen and cleaned and into the...

Mr. PROSEK: Brined. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...brined, honey brined and then into the smoker for four hours, I think.

Mr. PROSEK: He uses an apple wood.

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. PROSEK: I guess it supposed to be flavorful.

PALCA: Well, I'm here to try it. So it's - go ahead.

(Soundbite of crunching)

Mr. PROSEK: On toast.

PALCA: Hmm, on toast. Yeah, they're not usually crunchy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: James, what are the other ways that people prepare it, while Joe is chewing?

Mr. PROSEK: Well, prepare eels? Well, in Japan, they say they steam it, but it's really grilling it. And they grill it over a wood fire and they dip it in water over and over. And then they put a sweet sauce on it. This is a typical unagi you'd get in the restaurant. And the sweet sauce is a mix of mirin, a sweet red sweet rice wine and soy, predominantly, I think.

But I went to these eel-eating parties in Sweden where they serve eel 14 different ways and drink a lot of akvavit. And the objective of these eel parties is to not remember anything the next day.

PALCA: It seems like, as I read the book, there's quite a few ceremonies that involve some sort of a what shall I say - a mood-enhancing device I'm sorry product that helps you enjoy your meal meal - eel meal?

Mr. PROSEK: Oh, yeah, or eel stories.

Mr. PROSEK: Yeah. In Micronesia, I spent time with these people of the Lasialap clan. It's an eel-worshipping clan on the island of Pohnpei. And they basically consider eels their human ancestors. And when they tell an eel story, they drink sakau, or what they call kava in the most of the Pacific, a sort of brain-numbing narcotic. Or it's not maybe a narcotic, but some sort of, you know, mind-altering substance. But it helps the stories.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I should think. So is this the eel the eel that we're tasting now, is this the same that gets shipped to Japan?

Mr. PROSEK: No. This is all local, a very sustainable, you know, way of fishing. He's not taking that many fish. The weir doesn't catch all the fish in the river, obviously. But this is just locally caught, locally smoked, locally sold. I think he ships some to Europe.

The eels that are exported to the Asia the only state now that allows the export of eels to Asia is Maine and they - because they haven't figured out how to reproduce eels in captivity, they have to catch the babies right when they're first returning from the ocean. And they ship the babies to farms in China where they're raised because it's cheap in China to raise them for the Japanese market.

But if you eat eel in a sushi restaurant, for instance, in New York, that fish - there's a good that fish was born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, caught in the mouth of a river as a baby in Maine, shipped to a farm in China, raised to edible size, about 18 inches, killed, cleaned, pre-prepared, packaged and shipped back to New York.

You know, it's already cooked. It's - if you ask a restaurant to look at the packaging, they can show you, it's all in Chinese. But - so it's one of the least sustainable routes to market of any fish. And it's, you know, you talk about farm-raised versus wild fish, the eel is sort of a little of both because it's a wild-caught fish that's then farm-raised.

But this fish from the Delaware is totally a wild fish. It grew up in the river.

PALCA: Awesome. A remarkable journey for anything or anyone. We're talking with James Prosek about his new book on eels. I'm Joe Palca and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

So let's take another call now, if you guys don't mind. I think there are some questions that our listeners have. And let's go to Michael(ph) in Wellington, Florida. Michael, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. You're on the air.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hey, Joe. How are you?

PALCA: I'm great.

MICHAEL: I have a question in specific to the electric eel. I don't know if your guest may get this question all the time, but I've always been fascinating - fascinated with electric eels because of the power that they can generate. And I wanted to see if they were truly dangerous to humans. And, you know, you hear stories about them being able to down a horse. And I was just curious to see if any of that was urban legend or, you know, or if it was accurate, or if they really are dangerous to humans at any capacity.

Mr. PROSEK: I actually don't know anything about electric eels, except that I have been in the Amazon where they live. And they do - they can be very dangerous. You don't want to touch them. I think you could die from being shocked from one. But the electric eel is completely different from the eel that I wrote the book about. I think they're - I don't they're even remotely related, like the moray eel is related to the freshwater eel that I've been, you know, studying and spending time with.

But I think it's one of these cases of I think they call it convergent evolution, where two creatures sort of evolved to look similar from different -even though they're from different places.

PALCA: Okay, Michael...

Mr. PROSEK: But sorry...

PALCA: Yeah, sorry we'll have to - we'll have another show on electric eels, don't worry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: All right. Thanks anyway.

Mr. PROSEK: That's a great idea.

PALCA: So Flora, when you were up there shooting the video, did you have a chance to see any eels - or this isn't really the season. They're only there a few times a year or once a year.

LICHTMAN: We missed the big day...

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...the big migration. Fortunately, James had some great footage, so everybody gets to see it. But we weren't there for most of the action. We did see a lot of dead eels, though.

PALCA: Really?

LICHTMAN: A lot of smoked eels...

PALCA: Oh you mean hanging - yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...were on their way to the cracker that we're holding right now.

PALCA: I want to thank Doug(ph) who was kind enough, and that's Fran Doug(ph) who was kind enough to put this eel feast together for us. So thank you, Doug.

Mr. PROSEK: Thank you, Doug.

PALCA: Right. Very nice. Let's see. So let's go now to another call and let's hear from John(ph) in Orangeville, California. John, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOHN (Caller): Thank you. My question is that this is - this migration is -seems pretty unusual. And I've learned - what's the advantage of reproducing in the sea and then living their lives in freshwater?

Mr. PROSEK: Yeah, it doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. You'd think a fish that migrates to the ocean to spawn would migrate, like, 10 miles off the coast.

Also, it's really unusual because if - in the case of the North American eel, which is native from pretty much the St. Lawrence River in Canada down to Florida, around into the Gulf and all the way into Central America, every fish from every one of those East Coast rivers, as far as we know, goes to one place to spawn in the middle of the ocean. It's completely different, as far as I can tell, from any other fish.

So you get a mixing of - whatever survived from that particular generation returns to that place to spawn. They call it a panmixia, which is basically a giant orgy. They all mix their collective, you know, eggs and milt. And so you could have an eel from - a female eel from the St. Lawrence River mixing its eggs with the milt from or sperm from an eel that spent its adult life in Florida, a male eel, and the offspring could end up in Maine.

So it's sort of an interesting evolutionary strategy because you have all these adult fish that are tested in all kinds of climactic conditions, and they all return to one place. So whatever survives that particular year should be fairly adapted at surviving, you know, if there's rapid change, I guess, maybe they can survive it, because if you consider that eels supposedly have been around in this form for like 15 million years, they've survived all kinds of climactic changes.

You know, up until 13,000 years ago, north of Long Island, the continent was covered with ice so there were no eels up there, certainly, but they've re-colonized rivers as the rains changes. So...

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. PROSEK: ...yeah.

PALCA: Well, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. James Prosek, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. PROSEK: Thank you.

PALCA: And his book is called "Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso Sea, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish." And Flora, thank you.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. PROSEK: Thank you, guys.

PALCA: Our program's - we're done. That's it, you can all go home now. For NPR in New York, I'm Joe Palca.

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