While eels have been fished in and around the Bras d’Or Lakes for hundreds of years, we never knew how old they were, how long they could grow, whether we had more female than male eels in the population, or if they had the swimbladder parasite.
UINR recently completed a study to help us understand the local eel population in the Bras d’Or Lakes. The research, supported by Aboriginal Funds for Species At Risk, documented eel habitats outside Unama’ki Mi’kmaq communities and to address some of these questions.
Eels are designated as a Species of Special Concern under the federal Species At Risk Act. This designation means that eels are not as plentiful as they once were, but the current population is not so low that they warrant a threatened or endangered designation.
Through discussions with Mi’kmaq eel fishers, who graciously contributed samples for analyses, and our own surveys in different habitats throughout the Bras d’Or Lakes watershed, we were able to study 188 eels from our primary eel fishing location.
So what did we learn?
All of the eels that were greater than 30 cm in our samples were females. Yes, every one.
The largest eel we examined was 92.8 cm (0.98 m) and was 1.5 kg. It was 18 years old. The oldest eel we found was 19 years old and she was 66.0 cm (0.660 m) and weighed 612 g (0.612 kg). The smallest eel caught was 16.5 cm and was one year old. This young eel was caught in Christmas Pond in Christmas Island.
There is greater variation in age with the size of the eel. For example, the range of ages for an eel that was 50 cm (0.5 m) was eight to sixteen, while an eel around 40 cm may be four to eight years old.
The swimbladder parasite, Anguillicoloides crassus, was found in the Bras d’Or Lakes and was more widespread than we first thought. After two years of sampling, we can confidently report that, overall, approximately 46% of the eels are infected with the parasite. But it’s not like this everywhere.
In 2009, Whycocomagh Bay had 65% of infected eels and this increased to 75% in 2010. Nyanza Bay also has a high number of infected eels at 60% in 2009 and increasing in 67% in 2010. Other areas also showed an increase in infection between 2009 to 2010. Infected eels in East Bay eels increased to 27% from 25% and the southern portion increased to 25% in 2010 from no detection in 2009.
The most parasites found in one eel were 75 in Whycocomagh Bay. West Bay was the only area that did not have any eels infected with the parasite. As this parasite only affects eels and not humans, you can still eat eels. It is difficult to determine if an eel is affected with the parasite just by looking at its body.
In general, eels were found throughout the Bras d’Or Lakes and in a variety of habitats. They were commonly fished in the shallow, warm and protected embayments and barachois ponds. Many of our surveys in which we captured eels all had these traits in common and many of the habitats are found both outside and within our communities. All our waters are home to this incredible species. Let’s work together to make sure they stay that way.
Many people helped us in our research by providing eels and assisting in many ways: Barry Bernard, Blair Bernard, Winston Bernard, Joe Googoo, and Charles Young. Dean Denny, Angela Morris, Simon Sylliboy, Tyson Paul, and O’Hara Young assisted with collecting samples and processing. Aboriginal Funds for Species At Risk provided funding to support our research.