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I became fascinated with eels as a child when I was out fishing for trout and bass and caught them by accident using worms as bait. They were muscular and slimy and impossible to hold and very strange. I didn’t know what to make of them—were they snakes or fish or what? (They are indeed fish.) In my early teens I met an old game warden named Joe Haines—he caught me fishing illegally in a local reservoir—and he became a kind of outdoor mentor. Joe caught eels not by mistake but intentionally, with rod and line, in traps, and by spearing them in the summer and winter. Joe, like his Italian mother and German father liked to eat eels so there were times I spent watching Joe clean and eat them, and ate quite a few myself. I believe it was Joe who first told me that the eels that lived in the pond and stream and estuaries near my home in Easton, CT were born thousands of miles away in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the fish I caught near my house had made such a long journey—that they hatched as an egg in the darkness of a deep open sea. No other fish traverses such diverse habitats in their lives as eels do. They are remarkable creatures. My fascination with eels only grew, and over the years I have generated a lot of material about eels. I have made art with eels, I have cooked and eaten eels, I have traveled to remote parts of the world to learn about traditional uses of eels and record legends and stories about eels, I have written two books about eels, many articles, and made a documentary for PBS about eels. Below I will provide links to some of these eely creations if you care to look further. And hopefully some of this material will help send you on your own journeys, both physical and of the mind. Spending time with eels and people who have devoted their lives to observing and studying them, changed my world view.Here is a link to the book that I wrote about Joe Haines (Joe and Me) the old game warden, some eel stuff in there.Here is a link to the book that I spent twelve years working on about freshwater eels (Eels: An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish). It covers regions of the world as various as New Zealand, Micronesia, Japan, New York, Maine, Connecticut and Canada.Here is a link to a children’s picture book I wrote and illustrated in which one of the creatures is an eel! It’s called Bird Butterfly Eel.In 2010, I wrote an editorial for the New York Times about why eels should be the symbol of Thanksgiving dinner.Link to an article I wrote about the fate of eels which are declining in numbers due to the cumulative effects of pollution, dams, disease, overfishing, climate change and a host of other factorsHere is an article I wrote for National Geographic about eels with photos by renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet.Here is a link to the PBS Nature documentary we made about eels which covers New Zealand, Japan and parts of North America.Here is a video about me making art with dead eels that died in tanks at my friend’s bait shop.You can see some of my eels paintings on my website.Here’s an article about my friend Sherman Goldstein on Martha’s Vineyard who has one of the best collections of old hand-forged iron eel spears. I also collect eel spears.Here’s an article I wrote in Orion Magazine about my travels to New Zealand to write about the importance of eels in the culture of the native Polynesians, the Maori.Here’s an article I wrote for the NY Times about an old eel fisherman in the Catskill Mountains of NY State.Here’s an article I wrote in the NY Times about participating in Swedish eel eating parties.Want to further test your knowledge? Try answering these questions: What do you call a fish that spawns in saltwater and lives it’s adult life in freshwater? What was the first thing that Squanto taught the pilgrims at Plymouth colony to forage for in the spring of 1621? How big (in dollars) is the international fishery and trade for eels? What country eats more eel meat than any other? Who wrote the first scientific paper on the male reproductive organs (gonads) of the freshwater eel? Eels replace what creature in the mythology of the Maori people of New Zealand as a monster seducer and guardian? In what time period was it discovered that freshwater eels actually spawned in the ocean? Which country has eel eating parties in old fishermen's shacks on the sea where eel is prepared and served up to twelve different ways? Which of these fish is most closely related to freshwater eels?
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TED-Ed
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New York, NY
Eels are hugely important to both fresh and saltwater ecosystems as they are one of the creatures that actually move biomass across large areas (and historically made up as much as 50% of freshwater fish biomass). In the Micronesian island of Pohnpei there is a clan of people who worship eels, they believe that if you take the eels out of the water that the streams will stop flowing—that it is the movement of eels that generates the movement of water.
02/10/2014 • 
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