Conservation Bias and the American Eel
There's a clear tendency for society to care more about some types of wildlife than others. Tigers, elephants, polar bears, and pandas are some of the animals that society values most, if for no other reason than we find them to be particularly marvelous. The formal term for this superstar status is charismatic megafauna. On the other end of the spectrum are organisms like snakes, rodents, insects, and spiders. From a conservation standpoint, the charismatic megafauna usually gets a disproportionate share of the attention and funding. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It gives us something to rally around and engages the general public in conservation initiatives, however there is an injustice in that some very important species might not get the protection they deserve if they don't align with our standards of beauty. I bring the American Eel to your attention as a tragic example of this.
The American Eel is a migratory fish. For most of their lives they inhabit freshwater lakes and rivers along the east coast of North America. Once fully mature they make a one-way trip to the Sargasso Sea to breed. Like salmon, they only breed once in their life and then die shortly after. The eggs hatch out at sea, and juvenile eels can take several years to reach the inland freshwater habitats where they will mature and reside until it's their turn to make the terminal journey (up to 25 years).
American Eels were once a pillar of the Great Lakes Ecosystem. By some estimates they used to account for around half of all the biomass in Lake Ontario. In my opinion, this level of abundance warrants consideration as a keystone species simply because there is no other native organism capable of filling such a gap. The American Eel is a nocturnal predator with an opportunistic diet. During the day it burrows near the shore in muddy substrates, and in winter it hibernates in this burrowed state. It has traditionally been a very important fishery resource for aboriginals and early settlers, particularly during the harsh winters. The habit of huddling together in 'eel balls' meant that many fish could be speared through a single hole in the ice. A market remains for American Eel to this day. At times during the 1990's, the species accounted for more than half of all commercial fishery revenue out of Lake Ontario.
Unfortunately, American Eel populations have been in a steady decline for decades. The species has been virtually extirpated from Lake Ontario and migrations through the St Lawrence River are a tiny fraction of their former strength. They were a seemingly inexhaustible resource, but today commercial fishing has been mostly banned in response to their classification as an endangered species. The main cause of their decline is thought to be the construction of dams that disrupt their migrations, but there doesn't seem to be an abundance of research or public discourse. In fact, public awareness remains almost non-existent. I studied environmental science in a location very near to the great lakes for five years, yet the plight of the American Eel barely even made it onto my radar.
I think that if the American Eel was cute and cuddly this would not be the case. Our collective ignorance of its decline and reluctance to react serves as a reminder of our conservation bias. It's a bias that we all hold because it's completely natural to care the most about things that we find appealing or intriguing. We need to be wary of this in our conservation endeavors because no ecosystem is complete without a few 'icky' critters. They fulfill crucial functions that even our beloved charismatic megafauna can't go without. Maybe we should trick ourselves by linking the conservation of ugly species with that of majestic species. American Eels are a food source for Bald Eagles, so let's save the eels to save the eagles!