Imagine walking thousands of kilometres to give birth, and every few hundred you’re met by a smooth concrete wall.
Technically, there’s a secret door that a lucky few find and leave behind without telling the others.
The numbers of your group slowly dwindle until finally only a handful of you make it to the spot to have your babies.
The American eel faces a similar journey when it migrates to and from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. After spawning, they make their way towards freshwater rivers inland, like the Ottawa River, but first have to make it through a series of hydroelectric dams. A lucky few make the entire journey and live about 25 years before making the same trek the opposite direction, again thinning out the population. Dams and turbines have slashed—in some cases literally—the total eel population of the Ottawa River down by about 98 per cent.
Adèle Michon is the director of Quebec operations for the the Ottawa Riverkeeper; she’s also in charge of the organization’s eel release project.
“When a species that used to make up 50 per cent of our river ecosystem is now endangered, it raises a red flag,” she said in an email.
For years, they American eel has been listed as “endangered” by the Ontario government. While the government technically, came out with a recovery strategy in 2013, Emma Konrad, a spokesperson for Ottawa Riverkeeper, says “we’re still waiting on their statement on how exactly they plan to restore the population.”
Under the Actions we are taking section of the eel’s page on the Ontario website, it says, “Endangered Species and their general habitat are automatically protected.” However, this hasn’t been extended to hydroelectric dams.
The recovery strategy executive summary says the project will take multiple eel generations (one lasts about 20 years), and intend to re-establish the species in various types of waterways by the year 2150. If we start counting in 2020, that’s four and a half generations away.
If the Ottawa River population is was almost entirely wiped out in less than 50 years, it isn’t a stretch to think it will almost certainly be long gone by that time.
We don’t need to wait until then to see how losing eels affects the river.
“One of the issues is that they’re being replaced by a lot of bottom-feeding fish such as crayfish,” says Konrad, “which tend to soak up a lot of the bad chemicals and nutrients in the sediment of the river.”
When larger species eat the bottom-feeders, they are then poisoned by whatever their prey has eaten. That happens so on and so forth up the chain.
“That affects the overall health of the river,” says Konrad.
Losing eel populations in the river affects the entire species’ progeny.
“Females that live on the coast actually breed smaller than the eels that live in the Ottawa River, which are all female,” says Konrad. “When they can go back to spawn, they can spawn up to 20 million eggs, which is substantially more than the eel population that live on the coast.”
Currently the Chaudière dam is the only one along the Ottawa River that has infrastructure to accommodate eel migration.
When it comes to the Carillon dam, Geneviève Chouinard, spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, says the population isn’t big enough to warrant investing in similar infrastructure.
On the flip side, Hydro-Québec has put in an eel ladder at the Beauharnois dam. As they swim down the St. Lawrence River, some eels will break off towards the smaller Ottawa River, but most stay on course.
She says nearly 4,000 individuals will go through the eel ladder at Beauharnois. Konrad, of the Ottawa Riverkeeper, compares the series of pipes that make up the “ladder” to a game of Plinko, but the eels slither their way up rather than go down.
For four years, Hydro-Québec has had a partnership with Ottawa Riverkeeper to transport some of the captured eels, tag and release them in the Ottawa River to try and maintain the population.
This year, the Riverkeeper transported about 400 eels and on Thursday, July 13, released them off the shore of Petrie Island in Orleans.
Asked if there are any plans to one day have an eel ladder, or similar infrastructure, at the Carillon dam, Chouinard says the partnership with the Riverkeeper is their alternative.
But, realistically, it’s only a short term solution.
Importance to First Nations
The American eel, or Kichisippi Pimisi, is a sacred animal to the Algonquin people. According to the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO), their people “have always had a deep connection to Kichisippi Pimisi as a provider of nourishment, medicine and spiritual inspiration.”
In 2012, the AOO, an organization that represents 10 Algonquin communities in Ontario, released a report called Returning Kichisippi Pimisi, the American Eel, to the Ottawa River Basin.
The report reaffirms not only the importance of Kichisippi Pimisi to the People, but also the need for change.
It reads: “We have known for decades that turbines cause fish mortality, and especially eel mortality. We have had decades to develop a local solution to eel passage issues in Ontario, and specifically in the Ottawa River watershed. Regulatory tools such as the federal Fisheries Act, and later the provincial Lake and Rivers Improvement Act (LRIA) have been in place in some cases since confederation. However, these Acts are discretionary, and were not implemented in Ontario for waterpower facilities, resulting in a century of accrued impacts on the ability of Ontario’s very important large females to contribute to spawning and recruitment. The global population and recruitment back to Ontario has suffered considerably”
Similarly to the Riverkeeper, the report calls on a push to invest in infrastructure to help with the eel’s migration. It even singles out Carillon dam, and says, “It is the first dam eels encountered on their upstream migration in the Ottawa River… so it is absolutely necessary to ensure passage past this barrier and any others which are identified.”
Unless there is some sort of change, eels in the Ottawa River likely won’t last until the province’s 2150 recovery date.