It's eel season and though that might not have you excited, there is one local grad student who has fallen in love with these creatures that slither through our waterways.
Theresa Pellecchia, from Brewster, is doing her master's thesis project for on eels through a program sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Citizen scientists are currently studying eels, as they do annually, in various tributaries of the Hudson River, including Cortlandt's Furnace Brook.
Every day at low tide for months—from mid-March to early June—Pellecchia visits the Pocantico where it cuts through playground to gather, count and move the baby eels her so-called “fyke” net has caught in the night. The light-sensitive eels only travel at night and the large net that is embedded across a third of the stream has holes small enough to only catch the smallest ones. Bigger eels, she said, are there, they just aren't getting caught.
The eels, supposedly born in the Atlantic's Sargasso Sea (this is only suspected and has never been proven), journey all the way here en route to the fresh water where they will spend much of their lives. Once they hit fresh water, some of the all-male young will turn female, "we hope," Pellecchia said with two enthusiastic thumbs up, as they then have to capacity to produce 200 million eggs. That's right: 200 million eggs. They will return after about three decades to spawn in the Sargasso, and die.
In the Pocantico, in the brackish water (a mix of fresh and salty), Pellecchia catches one-year-olds who are kept from progressing further by the dam in . If they can't get to fresh water, there's no chance they'll turn female and therefore reproduce.
If you don't think eels are important, Pellecchia will have you convinced. They are an essential element of the ecosystem and the natural food chain that humans are messing with. American eels, Pellecchia said, are surpassing the depleted Japanese eels in the sushi market. Eels caught largely in Maine actually get shipped to Japan, repackaged and sold back to the States.
Meanwhile, right here in our region, the eel population seems to be on the decline for other unknown causes. The DEC and its volunteers are trying to figure out why.
The babies don't much resemble the black five-foot creature that these things can become. They are called glass eels for the first phase of their lives, and are transparent. “You can see their little hearts beating,” Pellecchia said. On the day we met with her, she catches eight babies and four “elvers” (kid eels), a pretty good haul. Her record here is 30 eels, while some sites under the DEC study have been known to catch hundreds or even thousands a day.
Pellecchia is testing the conditions that may make our site particularly slow for the eels – she takes air and water temperature and monitors water quality. She wonders too if the former GM plant has something to do with it.
Of course, while other eel watchers might have the luxury of a more woodsy and private locale, Pellecchia is just feet away from the popular redone playground. Kids wander over and ooh and ahh (or ick) at her eels. She is a natural teacher and gets everyone excited about her research, as she mucks about with her companion Rob Benitez (school policy requires she always bring a buddy for this work) in waders and scoops up eels out of the funnel of a net with her bare hands. Then she displays them to the small crowd of little people. For added viewer fun, she takes them out of the blue bucket and places them in a clear baggy where the glass eels and bigger kids glisten and squirm.
Then it's off to the Manor restoration where she releases her catch above the manmade dam. From there it's onwards and upwards, upstream to fresh water. "We'll help them out a little bit," Pellecchia said as she released her little bag of eels above the dam, "And...there they go."
The Pocantico site is a pilot site in its first year where eels are only counted and not weighed. Other sites being more extensively studied in the region include:
Richmond Creek in Staten Island
Bronx River in the Bronx
Saw Mill in Yonkers
Furnace Brook in Cortlandt
Minisceongo Creek in West Haverstraw
Indian Brook at Constitution Marsh in Coldspring
Quassaick Creek in Newburgh
Fall Kill in Poughkeepsie
Crum Elbow Creek in Hyde Park
Black Creek in Esopus
Saw Kill in Annandale-on-Hudson
- Hannacroix Creek in Coeymans
For more information on the DEC's American Eel Research, there's a Volunteer Flyer available for download; you can contact Sarah Mount at firstname.lastname@example.org; (845) 889-4745 x.108 or Zoraida Maloney at email@example.com; (845) 889-4745 x.107.
You can also just come to DeVries and look for the energetic blonde lady in the waders.