Wildlife Watch: What's killing Lake Champlain's eels?

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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) Lake Champlain is home to a population of eels that are increasingly threatened. And in the last month Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say more than 100 have washed up dead on local shores from Ferrisburgh all the way to the Canadian border. Our Ike Bendavid spoke with fisheries biologist Bernie Pientka to learn about what may be happening to the American eel.

"American eels are native to Lake Champlain. They have kind of an interesting life history where they actually spawn in the ocean and the young swim up river to get to Lake Champlain, and they live in freshwater for a number of years -- could be five to 20 years. Then they mature and go back out to sea to spawn," Pientka said.

He says efforts over the last 20 years have helped the eel population grow. "In 1997 and 2001 some eel ladders were placed on the Richelieu River to help eels get up river and basically into Lake Champlain. At the same time, they started a small stocking program in 2005 and 2008. They were stocking small eels into the Richelieu River to get into Lake Champlain," Pientka said.

The prehistoric fish are not invasive. There is no limit or season for anglers who might ever want to reel one in. "You can catch -- just the water has to be open to fishing," Pientka said.

He says they get a few reports of eels washing up dead every year, but within the last few weeks over 100 have washed up on the shores all over Lake Champlain. "That's when we started to say something is not right," Pientka said.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Do we have any idea why they are washing up?
Bernie Pientka: We don't. That's kind of the baffling point. We are in the process of trying to get some fish to look at -- some fish health tests and try to see if there is something going on there... It was just too many fish over too many areas. We're kind of really unsure of what's going on.
Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is it all one age group? or vary?
Bernie Pientka: It seems to be in the size range we are seeing fish in the low 20s, and the biggest one someone said is 36 inches, so I think we are looking at different ages.

On a recent trip to St. Albans we saw three eels washed up.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: So this has been a common sight right here on the shores of Lake Champlain?
Bernie Pientka: Yeah. This is what we have been hearing a lot about. And the photographs -- something right on the edge of the water. The wave action kind of props it up to the water. This one has been here awhile -- you can see it shrivelling up. We can see some fungus growing out of it so its probably been decomposing.

State biologists are working with New York and Quebec officials to share information. Eels that are spotted are bagged up to and taken to the lab for tests to see if they can figure out what's going on.

Bernie Pientka: So the head is actually missing
Reporter Ike Bendavid: Is this something common you have been seeing?
Bernie Pientka: We see a lot of birds and scavengers and eat portions of it
Reporter Ike Bendavid: I guess the biggest question -- is it just eels that you are seeing wash up?
Bernie Pientka: It's just eels. We haven't had any other reports of anything else washing up on the shore -- any other species.
Reporter Ike Bendavid: How many more eels washing up till this becomes a real concern?
Bernie Pientka: I think it's starting to become a concern right now, when we start having this many numbers and we haven't seen it in the past. We have had a few reports of a couple a year, but nothing this level and this range in diversity and areas of the lake -- a large portion of Champlain... Yeah, the numbers that we are seeing are pretty high for observing a random morality.