American eels don’t qualify for endangered list, feds rule

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) – The American eel’s chance for getting special protection slipped away Tuesday as federal regulators said there’s no need to list the slithery creature as an endangered species.

The announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes after the agency’s two-year review of the eel population prompted by Tim Watts, a Middleborough janitor who was worried that too many of the fish were dying along their journey to spawn in the Sargasso Sea.

“I’m concerned now that the eel will fall off the radar screen and slide back into obscurity,” said Watts, who filed the protection petition in 2004 with his brother, Doug, a freelance journalist living in Augusta, Maine.

Always in big supply and good for using as bait to catch better-looking fish, Watts never gave eels much thought when he grew up fishing around Massachusetts. But a few years ago, he and his brother started noticing more and more eels getting stuck at dams near their favorite fishing spots.

The research they did to support their suspicion that eels were in decline helped push the Fish and Wildlife Service to do a more thorough review.

But the government’s final analysis of information collected from Greenland to South America showed no evidence that the species was in danger of dying out.

“The eel population as a whole shows significant resiliency,” said Heather Bell, a fishery biologist stationed at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Hadley.

There are a few pockets of trouble, most notably in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River area, where large dams and hydropower turbines are blocking the eels’ path. Overfishing has also led to a decline in their numbers in the Chesapeake Bay.

But those hurdles aren’t “affecting the species to a degree that extinction is in the foreseeable future,” Bell said.

American eels only spawn in the Sargasso Sea, an expanse of warm, algae-filled water east of Bermuda. The young are carried by currents to the mouths of rivers from South America to Greenland, where they swim upstream into fresh water. Later in life, the fish find their way back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

Watts says he isn’t convinced the eels don’t need special protections. But he isn’t surprised that in the process of trying to get something federally regulated, his efforts failed.

“When Doug and I went into this, we weren’t particularly optimistic it would happen,” he said. “But if nothing else, it was important to put down a marker to say: ‘here is where someone saw something wrong and here is where someone stood up and said something.’ And no one can say they’re surprised in 20 years if the decline continues.”

AP-ES-01-30-07 1536EST

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