Today's Featured Artifact is an eel pot used by Hudson River commercial fishermen. The wire pot contains a series of cones which allow the eels to enter the trap, but make it difficult or impossible to leave. The wooden pegs used as closures on this eel pot were carved by Hudson River commercial fisherman Henry Gourdine.
Eel fishing was once a major industry in the Hudson River. British food traditions include eel pie and jellied eel, smoked eel is considered a delicacy in most Eastern European and Scandinavian countries, and Japan, Korea, and Vietnam also enjoy eel in a wide variety of foods. In the mid-20th century, eel was a major export from the Hudson River fishery.
American eel are opposite of many Hudson River fish in that they live in the river, and only return to the ocean to spawn. All American eels (and over 30 other species of eel) are born in the Sargasso Sea off the Atlantic coast of Florida and the Caribbean. The tiny new hatchlings ride the Gulf Stream north along the Atlantic coast in search of fresh water. By the time they reach the Hudson River, they are known as "glass eels," for their tiny, transparent bodies.
American eel can take between 12 and 20 years to reach maturity, at which point they return to the Sargasso sea to lay and fertilize eggs. This lengthy period of maturity means fewer eels survive to reproduce. In addition, the damming of tributaries, habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing contributed to their precipitous decline in the 1980s.
The exact life cycle of all species of eel and the reason for their decline remains largely a mystery, although more research is being conducted every year.
Today, American Eels are endangered and fishing for them in the Hudson River, and elsewhere, is no longer allowed. It may take decades for the population to recover.
Thankfully, in 2008 the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation started the Hudson River Eel Project, in which volunteers work with DEC scientists and educators to count glass eels and help transport them over obstacles to access freshwater tributaries in the Hudson Valley.
To learn more about the project, check out the video below!
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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