Standing in tall rubber boots in mud smeared with gooey algae, Bruno Ouellet tugs on massive nets strewn across the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, hoping to snag just a few eels.
“The fishing isn’t good,” the 47-year-old said. “In the early 1980s, you could catch 1,000 eels in a cage, but today I’ve only got three and I have to work just as hard.”
For centuries, Aboriginals and later French colonists fished eels from the shores of the mighty waterway at Kamouraska, Quebec, about 400km northeast of Montreal.
Then suddenly, the eel population collapsed and only a handful of fishermen are still tending their nets here, from September to October each year.
The eels of this region reproduce in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
The larvae migrate toward Canadian shores where they are fished, or they go on to inland lakes and rivers where they grow into adult eels that eventually return to the waters near Bermuda to start the cycle again.
Researchers and fishers noted a decline in the population starting in the 1980s.
“It’s a freefall,” said Guy Verreault, a biologist with the Quebec ministry of natural resources.
Pollution in the Great Lakes is partly to blame.
Also, 12,000 dams and other obstacles were erected along the eels’ migration route on the Saint Lawrence River toward the Great Lakes over the years, hindering their reproduction.
“Of the eels that do manage to overcome these obstacles [on their way to freshwater basins inland], 40 percent later die in the hydroelectric turbines on their way back to the Sargasso Sea,” Verreault said.
Twenty years ago, fishermen caught up to 400 tonnes of eels a year, but now their annual catch is less than 40 tonnes, he estimated.
The odorous, fatty white meat was smoked and exported to Germany and Japan, but nowadays, the lean harvest is mostly sold to Chinatowns in North America.
The government of Quebec in 2009 bought back most of the eel fishing permits issued over past decades in an effort to prevent a total collapse of the fishery.
Today, there are just 14 licensed eel fishers in these parts, including Gertrude Madore, a 75-year-old redhead who was the first and maybe the last woman to be licensed by the province.
In the past, fishermen would cross the muddy beach on horseback to bring the eels back to their village.
“There were spots where the horses got stuck so we had to haul the eels out in sacks on our backs; they would wiggle and we’d fall face first into the sludge,” Madore said.
“Today we have tractors, but there are no more eels,” she said.
According to Canadian government statistics, the number of young eels entering inland lakes and rivers through the Saint Lawrence has dropped to less than 3 percent of the numbers recorded in the 1980s.
During the same period, the population has remained stable in other North American coastal waters.
Biologist Louis Bernatchez of Laval University in Quebec City believes the divergence in the population numbers inland and in coastal waters in North America may be because of genetic changes.
“It takes an eel with specific genetic qualities to make it to the upper Saint Lawrence river,” he said. “Generations of eels were crushed in electric turbines and so these [robust] qualities are less present among this population.”
“If it continues, the eel will disappear from these parts,” he said.
Biologists say if it can be done it will take 25 to 30 years for the eel population to bounce back in these waters.
On the shores of the Saint Lawrence River, the last eel fishers tend their nets, breathing in the salt air blowing from the ocean and listening to geese squawking above as they begin their annual migration south for the winter.
“My children and my grandchildren will continue to fish. One day, things will change back to the way they were,” Madore said hopefully.
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