Swimming With the Eels

Tess Johnson was paddling in Maine last weekend when she saw and photographed a natural phenomenon that few of us witness: the mass migration of young eels, known as glass eels or elvers.

Photo of elvers by Tess Johnson in Maine.

The baby eels hatch in the Sargasso Sea, a part of the Atlantic Ocean where floating mats of a seaweed called sargassum provide habitat for a variety of ocean life. They then drift and swim 1,000 miles or more to reach the rivers, streams, lakes and ponds where they mature and live virtually their entire life (10 to 25 years) before returning to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.

Photo by Tess Johnson

Maine is one of only two U.S. states (along with South Carolina) to permit commercial elver fishing, a questionable practice given the steep decline in eel populations in recent decades because of dams and other factors. A small number of fishermen with elver licenses string fine nets across waterways in Maine each spring to catch the young eels, which fetch $1,000 to $2,000 a pound depending on the year. The elvers are transported alive to Asia and raised there as a delicacy, primarily eaten as sushi.

Many thanks to Tess for given us a wonderful photographic look at this fascinating species—and the terns that were happily dining on them as she paddled. If you're interested in learning more (eels are an under-appreciated part of the ecosystem), we highly recommend the book "Eels," by our friend James Prosek, the great artist, writer and naturalist, or the PBS series based on it. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Tern feeding on elvers in Maine (photo by Tess Johnson)

Photo by Tess Johnson