Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)

Chapter 11. Still in the Hunt

The eel

Curiosity will never be content. Even today, when we know so much, curiosity has not unravelled the riddle of the birth and sex life of the eel. Perhaps these are things, like many others, destined never to be learnt before the world comes to an end. Or perhaps—but here I speculate, here my own curiosity leads me by the nose—the world is so arranged that when all things are learnt, when curiosity is exhausted (so, long live curiosity), that is when the world shall have come to its end. But even if we learn how, and what and where and when, will we ever know why? Why, why?

— GRAHAM SWIFTWATERLAND

In the fall of 2008, tying up the loose ends of this book, I e-mailed Mike Miller at the Ocean Research Institute in Tokyo to ask a few last questions. Mike said he had some big news but could not share it until the official press release had gone out to the Japanese media. I had a feeling what his news might be, and though I didn’t know the details, there was really nothing else it could be: they had found them.

Some weeks later Mike told me that a vessel operated by the Japanese Fisheries Research Agency had, for the first time, caught adult specimens of a catadromous eel on the spawning grounds. The vessel had netted single adult males of both the Japanese eel and the giant mottled eel, Anguilla marmorata, and two female specimens of Anguilla japonica in professional fisheries’ trawling nets not far from the area where he and Katsumi Tsukamoto had captured the smallest newborn eel larvae to the west of Guam. “The discovery,” Mike wrote me in an e-mail, “was not that glamorous,” in part because the eels caught had completed their spawning, and were flaccid and nearly dead, except for one male Anguilla marmorata that was still alive enough to swim in a tank on board for a while.

“But adults have finally been caught in the ocean, at least,” he added with little fanfare.

I called Mike early one morning in Tokyo to get a read on what the summer discovery might actually mean to him and his colleagues. I told him that I had feared this moment. Mike downplayed the discovery.

“Finding the adults doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know,” he said. “The mystery is still there. We still don’t know how they do it. We don’t know how many there are, whether they arrive at once or spawn in stages. We don’t know exactly where they do it.” As he explained, the eels caught had spawned days before and possibly drifted a good distance from the spawning area. “And we haven’t seen them doing it.”

But with each year, researchers peer more into the hidden lives of eels. The Europeans are accelerating their eel tagging projects, just as they are facing an alarming crash in the return of juvenile eels to their rivers. In the autumn of 2006 and again in 2008, scientists released adult eels from the west coast of Ireland outfitted with pop-up tags to try to track them out to the Sargasso Sea.

“Do you think they’ll find them?” I asked Mike.

“Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “there’s nothing really to find. We know where they spawn. That’s not a big question.”*

I asked why the Fisheries Research Agency of Japan had spent so much money to find the Japanese eels. What value was it to them?

“The agency wanted to know about the spawning ecology, where the eels spawn exactly, and how many are spawning,” Mike said. “They sold it from a fisheries management perspective. But basically they were just cowboys wanting to get out there and see if they could catch them.” Finding them did not add much to our scientific knowledge of this fish, Mike suggested, nor did it take anything away from the magnificence of their life history.

“Such a long migration as that made by the European eel and other catadromous eels is rare among fishes,” Mike mused. “It’s incredible. I mean, giant tuna move around the globe pretty far, too, and come back to spawning areas, but they’re not coming from freshwater and doing it. And there’s very few species that migrate that far just once in their lives and then die.”

Mike thinks the position of the spawning area is imprinted on the eel larvae when they’re born, by some geomagnetic map sense.

“It has been proven that eels have a magnetic sense,” Mike said. “And I hypothesize that the reason they have that magnetic sense is to find the general spawning area. Once they get near it, perhaps temperature, salinity, and the smell of each other come into play, and they begin to aggregate. Of course,” he added, “this is all speculation. But it’s hard to imagine anything else, really. So that’s a mystery. How the heck do they do that?”

“Is that what you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night?” I asked Mike. “Is that the burning question for you? How they get there?”

“The mysteries I think about every day,” Mike said, “are concerned with finding the spawning areas of other species of Anguilla—in the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Indonesian seas. Katsumi and I are going back to the Indian Ocean next year and the Indonesian seas after that. There are at least two big cruises on the schedule and more planned. We’ve got the ship time lined up, so we’re going to go for it. We’re still in the hunt.”

Everyone likes a good treasure hunt. The eel quest requires big toys, major outlays for fuel, a crew, and a staff of scientists. It’s a floating community of data collection. But out at sea, Mike says, the purpose of data collection blurs into doubts and uncertainties. With the eel, Mike and his colleagues have found that intuition and spirituality have braided with the science. One of his favorite stories involves his cruise with Katsumi in 1991, when they first discovered the spawning area of the Japanese eel. They were coming up on the last day of the cruise and had captured no eel larvae. So far the expedition had been a bust. Spirits were low. That night they would make their last pull of the net before heading back.

On the afternoon before that last evening, one of the staff aboard ship conducted an official tea ceremony, being trained and certified in that cultural skill. That evening good fortune came to their nets when they caught not one or two but hundreds of transparent leaf-shaped baby eels, indicating that they were in the vicinity of where adults had spawned. Mike and members of the crew refer to that evening as “magical.” They willingly attribute their catch to the spiritual focus provided by the ritual of the tea served by their colleague in a kimono.

“Do you think eels are a spiritual fish?” I asked Mike.

“I’m at my scientific table,” he said, laughing. “We might get into that another time. It’s not as simple as what people might think.”

That’s clear. It is hard to evaluate personal experience scientifically. Science is a system to collect and interpret tractable information; obviously, questions related to spiritual issues or personal experience cannot be easily traced and quantified. “A lot of scientists ignore personal experience altogether,” Mike said, “largely because it can’t be measured. That’s not necessarily a mistake if you’re doing science. But if you’re trying to evaluate life on earth, it probably is.”

If you collect information about personal experiences—if you record and interpret the many regenerated stories and recantations—the evidence supports a picture of a far more complex universe.

If an indigenous Pohnpeian tells me he’s seen eels come out of the water and dance in the street on the day before the high chief of his clan dies, or that eels can climb up a tree to take the egg of a fairy tern, who am I to say that doesn’t happen? Some might say, “Well, that’s not possible.” I’ve come to believe in a system of the universe that can include many things—among them nonphysical existence.

For me, the truth of the indigenous stories is of no importance. The fact that they exist is. And if they exist in myriad forms in different cultures, that speaks to something essential that I suspect is vitally important to heed. Preserving diversity of fishes or any other type of creature around the world is about preserving the sources of our awe and inspiration. If we lose the creatures that form the foundation of our spiritual systems, if we lose those things that inspire us to be spiritual at all, then we will be lost.

We’ve been given the gift of inquisitiveness, the capacity to reflect on our own emotions, to create, to imagine. But that gift must be sustained. It can be fed by interpretations of nature already imagined, by books and paintings, by skins and bones of dead animals in natural history museums. But if we can, why not preserve the source as well, to allow people to drink from the original wellspring?

The eel is timeless and vital, a metaphor for the resilience of life itself. To paraphrase what Katsumi wrote in his poem about the eel: Why live, why die? Why do we do these kinds of things? Why do we choose this hard life? Because we have absolutely no choice but to be productive, to be optimistic, to take one step forward, to survive. It’s all part of the experience of being alive. To many, Ray Turner—the river rat, the old hair bag—would appear to have a hard life, a lonely life. But to learn about him is to admire him and understand his creed: “Work is a privilege of life.” It’s the eel in all of us—their relentlessness, as DJ, the Maori bush guide, describes it. Despite the trials, the obstacles, the dams, the diversions, we still make our journeys from birth to death, like the restless traveler, the eel.

* In November 2006, researchers released twenty-two adult eels outfitted with tags from the west coast of Ireland. The tags were timed to pop off the eels in April 2007, float to the surface, and transmit data on the eels’ travels via satellite to a computer. But in the five months the researchers predicted it would take the eels to get to the Sargasso Sea, they had covered only 800 miles of the 3,000-mile- long journey (the results were published in the September 2009 issue of Science). Twenty-nine more eels were released from western Ireland in the autumn of 2008, with tags timed to release in the spring of 2010.