Monthly Archives: August 2017

Asia market far extends American eel’s journey

Published August 12, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

It’s easy to see why harmless snake eels, such as this one, are mistaken for sea snakes. All eels are fish. ©2017 Susan Scott

I thought I knew my eels, but a recent news item in this newspaper, about a species called the American eel, left me blank.

The story was about the East Coast’s immature American eels, called elvers, wiggly little fish that are fetching up to $2,000 a pound, live, due to Asian aquaculture demands. Managers worry that such demand is jeopardizing the species.

Were baby eels named after elves? I wondered. Alas, no. The word is a merge of the 17th-century expression “eel fare,” meaning (at the time) eel journey.

The fish were well named.

As adults, American eels live in rivers, estuaries or marine coastal areas, eating insects, fish, fish eggs, crabs, worms, clams, frogs and dead animal matter, all at night. In the daytime, eels hide under rocks and logs.

Females grow to a whopping 5 feet long, and males to 3. Individuals live 15 to 20 years.

Old age for the American eel’s life is far from laid-back. When its biological clock sounds the alarm, the fish stops eating, its eyes double in size and the eel ships to sea.

This fish can breathe through its skin as well as its gills, allowing the eel to slink across wet grass and slither through mud. Mucous glands produce slime over the entire body, making the creature, well, slippery as an eel.

The eel’s destination is the Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, a 2 million-square-mile area of warm water about 2,000 miles offshore.

It’s a one-way trip. Once there, each female releases 20 to 30 million eggs as males release sperm. Mission accomplished, the adults die.

Hatched eel eggs drift in the Gulf Stream for a year. When they reach the American coast, the transparent juveniles, 2 to 3 inches long, are called glass eels.

As the little fish head toward estuaries, swim up rivers and settle into coastlines, they turn gray-green. These 4-inchers, called elvers, are what Asian aquaculture farmers want for stock in a lucrative market for eels as food.

The American eel is the only freshwater species in North America, but Europe has a similar one, as does Japan. Dwindling stocks of those species have created poaching of American elvers along the U.S. East Coast.

Hawaii has no freshwater eels, but the reefs around us host so many marine species (42 morays, 12 congers and 17 snake eels) that I keep a separate email file just for “sea snake” sightings.

So far, only two were correct, both the yellow-bellied species that occasionally (but rarely) drifts our way on El Nino currents.

Photos are crucial for ID. A reader recently wrote, “I know you don’t think we have sea snakes in Hawaii, but believe me, I know my eels.” The blurry photo he sent was a snowflake moray.

Snowflake Moray Eel, Hanauma Bay. ©2006 Scott R Davis

That golden time of year has arrived on kolea wings

Published August 5, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Pacific golden plover, or kolea, pauses on Sand Island, Midway. The atoll is about 1,000 miles from the main Hawaiian Islands, to where the birds migrate from Alaska. Courtesy Luke Halpin

Writing in all caps with multiple exclamation marks is the text equivalent of shouting. But those punctuation points and uppercase letters have their moments, and here’s one: OUR KOLEA ARE BACK!!!

The birds have been trickling in all week, returning from their child-rearing chores in Alaska.

On July 25, Pacific golden plover expert Wally Johnson forwarded me an email with the subject “Plover at BYUH.” Wally wrote, “They’re starting to head back — neat! The early ones in ‘fall’ are often females, as this one appears to be. They apparently leave the guys in charge of their growing kids and zip off to enjoy the less complicated life in Hawaii. So, the cycle is turning once again — amazing.”

The next day, Niu Valley resident Peter Ehrman emailed, “This evening I spotted a kolea in the back of the valley! Don’t know if it’s a very early arriver or a straggler that never left, but it’s definitely a kolea. Thought you’d like to know.”

I do want to know. It’s an exciting end-of-summer moment when we see a plover, and especially exciting when the individual that lives on our lawn or pecks on our street returns.

Just about everything regarding these birds is remarkable, but the one fact that drops all jaws is that each season’s chicks instinctively head south by themselves. They have no guidance besides the compass in their DNA.

Chicks stay in Alaska as long as the tundra still has bugs and berries. The youngsters need to build up enough body fat to make the 3,000-mile nonstop journey to the Hawaiian Islands.

Look for these skinny youngsters in October. If the snow falls late, some chicks arrive as late as November.

It’s a rough trip for a bird that just got its wings, and making it to Hawaii is no guarantee for survival. The young must compete for grazing space with older birds, many of which guard their foraging territory aggressively.

At best about 20 percent of summer chicks live through their first year. On a more cheerful note, the ones that make it through their first year have good potential for a long and healthy life.

When I told my husband about the two plover emails I received, he asked whether I was going to write about these early-­bird arrivals.

Of course. Announcing the return to Oahu of our Pacific golden plovers is an honor I hold dear.

As another reader wrote about hearing and seeing a kolea on her neighbor’s rooftop July 26: “All is right with the world. The kolea are home.”

Thank you to all who wrote about the return of these marvelous migratory shorebirds. We may not be actually shouting, but we’re thinking it. WELCOME HOME, KOLEA!!