Fight for Wildlife Pushes Ahead / Chesapeake Eels Seek the Sargasso Sea - Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part I

Chapter 3. Fight for Wildlife Pushes Ahead / Chesapeake Eels Seek the Sargasso Sea


CARSON COMPLETED HER M.A. in Zoology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1932. The Depression dashed her hopes of going on for a doctorate but she continued to teach part-time at the University of Maryland while she tried to find a college position. Although she thought she had forever abandoned a writing career, economic necessity, compounded by the death of her father in 1935 and her assumption of the role of head of household, forced her to return to writing.

Research for radio scripts she was writing for the Bureau of Fisheries served as the basis of feature articles on Maryland’s natural history which she sent to the local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. Sunday editor Mark Watson was impressed with Carson’s lucid style and her scientific accuracy and published as many of her articles as he could, sometimes sending those he could not use to affiliated newspapers.

Much of Carson’s newspaper writing concerns the population and habitat changes of mid-Atlantic fish and wildlife and reflects the research of a thoroughly competent marine biologist. They show Carson’s already broad interest in the conservation of resources, her special interest in wildlife, her concern with the impact of human exploitation on wildlife habitats, and her fascination with the intricate processes of nature.

Carson’s interest in eels began during her summer study at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she saw the ocean for the first time in the summer of 1929. Later, in a protozoology experiment at Johns Hopkins, she observed the effect changes in the salinity of sea water had on the behavior of the eel. Carson’s fascination with these beautiful and unfathomable creatures appears most significantly in Book III of Under the Sea-Wind, where the central character is Anguilla, a European eel who ends her maturation with a two-hundred-mile journey to the open sea.

Carson’s brief but successful journalistic career with the Baltimore Sun was an important apprenticeship in writing science for the public. It established her identity as a writer who had discovered what she wanted to write about.

Fight for Wildlife Pushes Ahead

image [ … ] THE INESCAPABLE FACT that the decline of wildlife is linked with human destinies is being driven home by conservation the nation over. Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed. But the home of wildlife is also our home.

One of the most startling pictures painted by those who are fighting for conservation of natural resources is that of the speed with which the work of destruction has been accomplished. It is not necessary to go back to Colonial times for contrast. A scant hundred years ago, more than half of America was unspoiled wilderness. Wild swans, geese and brant were to be found in every marsh and slough and prairie pot-hole; slaves in the Chesapeake Bay country were fed on canvasbacks until they are said to have revolted at the fare; wild turkey, grouse and other upland game birds were incredibly abundant. Antelope ranged the Western plains in numbers perhaps equalling the bison, and from coast to coast the bugling of the elk resounded in the forests.

A hundred years ago, Audubon, the artist naturalist, saw from his Kentucky village the skies literally clouded with the flocks of the passenger pigeon. He estimated that more than a billion birds must have passed overhead in a four-day flight. When the beechnuts were ripe, the pigeons flew 200 miles in a day to feed on them, and forest areas of more than a hundred square miles were so densely packed with roosting birds that the trees broke under their weight.

A hundred years ago, salmon still ran in the rivers of New England wherever dams had not blocked their passage and mills poisoned their spawning beds. The spring run of the alewife, or river herring, was an important event of the year to villagers on New England rivers, and shad poured into the Susquehanna, the Delaware and other coastal streams in such numbers that the shallow waters foamed with their passage. Sturgeon leaped in the waters of the Great Lakes, where the sails of the first fishing vessels in those inland seas moved over Erie, Huron and Michigan.

A hundred years ago the flights of migratory waterfowl winging their way southward along the Mississippi flyway passed along the dividing line between the known and the unknown halves of the continent. To the west, beyond miles of prairie still unbroken by the plow, the sun set over untamed Rockies; eastward, a sprinkling of farms and villages traced out the Ohio and the Tennessee and the wall of the Appalachians hid the lights of the Seaboard cities, where, alone on all the continent, were dense settlements.

But what of wildlife today? Government service, whose business it is to know conditions, paint a general picture of scarcity and depletion. The last heath hen perished on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1933, and the passenger pigeon is now a creature of legend. Salmon are virtually gone from the rivers of New England, and the Atlantic Coast shad fisheries have declined some 80 per cent within half a century. Waterfowl flights fell in 1933 and 1934, and although Government regulations plus the establishment of sanctuaries have resulted in some improvement, the plight of certain species, notably canvasback and redhead duck, remains serious. The ranks of elk were so thinned by 1904 that domestication was urged as the only means of preventing their extinction. Although prong-horn antelope are now on the increase within refuges and reservations, they are reduced from some 30,000,000 or 40,000,000 to about 60,000. Mountain goats, moose and grizzly bear are also on the wane.*

Yet this mere remnant of wildlife supports a resource estimated by business interests as worth considerably more than a billion dollars a year in cash turnover. Sportsmen’s expenditures run to three-quarters of a billion annually, while expenditures of others in the enjoyment of wildlife are estimated at something over half a billion. Every year, more than 5,000,000 automobiles carry sportsmen to hunting and fishing grounds, the mileage used being equivalent to the actual consumption of 87,000 automobiles. In the States of New York and New Jersey, about 2,000 boats are licensed to carry fishing parties, and the fish and game commissioners of the latter State estimate that each season more than a million salt-water anglers are attracted to its shores.

Such figures carry convincing proof that preservation of wildlife is good business. However, the job of conservation that is being urged this week has a deeper significance than the restoration of wildlife alone.* For three centuries we have been busy upsetting the balance of nature by draining marshland, cutting timber, plowing under the grasses that carpeted the prairies. Drainage operations, intended to reclaim more land for agriculture, have directly affected millions of acres of waterfowl nesting grounds, and indirectly destroyed additional millions by lowering the water tables of the soil from 10 to 60 feet within a score of years.

The story of lower Klamath Lake in Oregon, once described by Theodore Roosevelt as “one of the greatest wild-fowl nurseries in the United States,” has been repeated many times in the case of other areas drained in the name of progress. Klamath Lake was drained at considerable expense to convert the region to agricultural use, later devastated by numerous fires, and finally abandoned because it was found impossible to sweeten the soil of these former marshlands for agricultural crops. There is now talk of reflooding it!

But as long as it was only the ducks and their kind that were being pushed nearer and nearer the brink of extinction, the cause of wildlife had few champions. Then one day - less than four years ago - the winds blowing over the Western prairies picked up the soil that had no anchor because the grass was gone and carried it eastward. People in Pennsylvania looked up to see the sky darkened by dust from the fields of Kansas, and New York farmers received a donation of soil from Nebraska. The words “dust bowl” and “resettlement” became part of our national vocabulary.

The program of national conservation agencies that is being put before America this week is no mere sentimental plea for birds and fish and big-game animals. It means checking the spread of the dust bowl, and perhaps in time binding its swirling sands once more with the tough roots of prairie grasses. It means reforestation of hillsides so that the melting snows may be held in the ground that is dying of thirst. It means giving back to the waterfowl and the muskrat a few million acres of land which nature meant to be marsh forever. [ … ]

Chesapeake Eels Seek the Sargasso Sea

image FROM EVERY RIVER AND STREAM along the whole Atlantic Coast, eels are hurrying to the sea. Reaching salt water, they will strike out south and east to the Sargasso, there to mingle with other eel hordes which have made the longer westward crossing from Europe. From Greenland, Labrador, the United States, Mexico, and the West Indies; from Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, France and the British Isles, eels go at spawning time to those mid-oceanic meadows of brown sargassum weed.

So the most remarkable of all Chesapeake Bay fishes is born in alien waters. Before it is half as long or as thick as a man’s thumb it makes a journey across 1,000 miles of strange, wild waters without benefit of chart or compass, finding the shores from which its parents came a year and a half before. In bays, rivers and streams it feeds and grows for ten years, perhaps fifteen or twenty. At last, obeying an instinct as old as the tribe of eels, it sets out on the return journey to the Sargasso to produce its young and itself to die. Thus is the life cycle of the eel completed.

Some 2,000 years ago Aristotle declared that eels were generated spontaneously from mud. Even today there are people who still subscribe to the ancient belief that a horse hair falling into water becomes an eel. Within the past two decades, reputable scientists knew little more than the fact that spring and fall the eels are running in the rivers - in the fall the old eels are bound for the sea, in the spring the young are ascending every bay and river estuary.

Four and a quarter centuries after the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria crossed the dread sea of floating sargassum weed another explorer, Danish Johannes Schmidt, sailed over a spot in the Sargasso, south of Bermuda and a thousand miles east of Florida, and declared it to be the breeding place of the eel. In twenty years of painstaking research he had literally strained the surface waters of the ocean for eel larvae, finding younger and younger stages all the way across the Atlantic from Europe, until at last he found the youngest stage of all and knew he had reached the birthplace of the eels.

Let’s picture the spawning journey of a Chesapeake Bay eel. Part of it we know from observed fact; part we shall have to supply from imagination aided by our knowledge of later happenings. If our eel lives far up toward the headwaters of one of the rivers tributary to the bay, it is almost certain to be a female, for the males usually remain in salty or brackish water near the river mouths.

Other autumns to the number of ten, fifteen or twenty have come and gone, but our eel has never before felt the desire to leave the familiar mud banks dotted with crayfish burrows, the marshy banks where small fowl or water rats could now and then be seized, the forests of water weeds where hunting was good for minnows, sunfish, and perch.

Now physical maturity has attuned her to the call of seaward hurrying water. One dark night, when wind ruffles the surface of the river and clouds hide the moon, she slips away downstream on the journey which she will never retrace. Hiding by day, drifting with the currents by night, she finds the river ever widening, the channels deepening, the water bringing unfamiliar tastes to her keen senses.

She is not alone; more and more eels have joined the caravan. Probably as their numbers increase and the strange, bitter tang of salt grows stronger in the water the excitement of the eels grows, they travel faster, rest less often. In the lower estuary of the river the male eels have been living, growing fat on shellfish, worms and water plants - on shad and herring looted from fishermen’s gill nets in the spring. Compared with the 3- to 4-foot females, however, the males are dwarfs, never growing to a greater length than two feet.

Gradually the river garb of olive brown is changed for a coat of glistening black with under parts of silver: This is the dress worn only by eels about to undertake the far journey to the Sargasso. The snouts become high and compressed, probably owing to some sharpening of the sense of smell; the eyes become twice their former size, as though in preparation for the descent along darkening sea lanes.

After the eels leave our shores nothing more is seen of them. The only clue to their destination is the finding of the newly hatched larvae floating nearly a thousand feet below the surface of the Sargasso Sea. How do the migrants find their way? Perhaps one man’s guess is as good as another. The English naturalist Henry Williamson suggests the eels find the Gulf Stream and swim against its current, their keen nostrils scenting in its warm waters the rotting sargassum weed.*

Even more puzzling, how do the fragile larvae, as transparent as glass and flattened like a willow leaf, find their way back to the shores from which the parents came? And how do the children of the American and European eels return to the proper continent?

When a few months old and less than an inch long, eel larvae begin their homeward migration, aided by the movements of the water currents. Since the breeding grounds of the European and American eels overlap, the larvae of the two species travel together for a time. (The European eel has a larger number of vertebrae and so may be distinguished even as a larva.) Finally, the two great stream of larvae begin to diverge, the American eels turning westward, the European eastward.

From January to March, when something less than a year old, American eel babies are arriving in coastal waters off the Chesapeake, off New England somewhat later. At that time European eel babies are somewhere in mid-Atlantic and will not reach shore until they are 3 years old.

As a partial explanation of the infallible homing instinct of the two species of eels, scientists point out that the American eel undergoes a change from the flat, leaflike larva to the rounded “glass-eel” stage when it is only a year old, while the European eel requires two years more. Until this stage is reached, scientists say, the young eels feel no urge to seek the coast - therefore there is no chance that a young European eel will make port in the wrong continent.

When the young eels begin to enter our rivers they are from 2 to 3½ inches long and practically colorless except for the eyes. The segregation of the sexes is already apparent, the males remaining in tidal marshes and brackish river mouths, the females pushing upstream, clambering over falls, up dams, even over damp rocks. “Elvers,” as they are called, swim at or near the surface, often forming an unbroken procession extending for miles along the edges of rivers or creeks.

In some European rivers the elvers themselves are taken for food; in others they are caught for stocking in other rivers less plentifully supplied with eels for the ready European markets.

Although not in great favor in local markets, eels support one of the more important Chesapeake fisheries. Out of the thirty-six varieties of fishes produced in Maryland waters, eels rank ninth in poundage, eighth in value. About a quarter of a million pounds are produced in Maryland, this figure being a little more than half of the total Chesapeake yield. Most of the output is shipped to New York and other distant markets, but part of the catch is consumed locally and part is used as bait, especially on trotlines fished for hard crabs. The Maryland Legislature once (about 1890) spent $3,400 in an attempt to exterminate eels because of their frequent raids on fishes caught in gill nets.

* Ed.: The population of all big game animals today is much larger than in 1938. Pronghorn elk, mountain goats, and moose are now hunted legally. Grizzly bears have rebounded with management to such a degree that they are a problem in some areas. Canvasback and redhead duck populations bounced back in the 1950s, but then declined. They have remained steady in recent years, although at levels that are low even when compared to what they were in 1938.

* Ed.: The week in which this article was published had been proclaimed National Wildlife Restoration Week.

*Ed.: The mysterious migration of the eels to the Sargasso to spawn remains one of the great riddles of zoology. Larvae have been found drifting in the ocean currents in both eastern and western directions from the Sargasso, but no mature eels have been caught in the open ocean. It is simply not known by what mechanism the adult eel manages to find its way out to the Sargasso from the freshwater estuaries in which they spend their adult lives.