Biologists seeking to learn more about migration habits of American eels in N.H. watersheds

LACONIA — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week installed an eel trap at the Lakeport Dam and is hoping to catch about 10 migrating American eels in order to fit them with transmitters which will allow them to track the migration of eels as they travel down New Hampshire rivers and out into the ocean where they will spawn in the Sargasso Sea east of Bermuda.
''The eels we're looking for will be in their silver stage, mostly 20-year-old females who can be as long as 40 inches and weigh over three pounds,'' says Douglas Smithwood, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He worked with Kevin Fraser of Eagle Creek Renewables, owners of the hydroelectric dam at Lakeport, to install the trap and said that he will be checking it next week to see how well it has worked,
''We thought it would provide us with some useful information about eel migration,'' said Smithwood, who said that eels have long been coming up the Winnipesaukee River and into Lake Winnipesaukee.
''There are stories of eels in the Merrymeeting River in Alton that were so plentiful that people would use spears to catch them,'' said Smithwood, who says that they can even be found in places like Rust Pond in Wolfeboro, where he lives and where he once taught at Brewster Academy.
And they can grow to be pretty big. The record eel for New Hampshire was caught in Crystal Lake in Eaton in July of 1975 by Michael Hasharak and it was 44.5 inches long and and weighed 8 pounds.
Eels spawn at sea and return to coastal waters in New England where the males stay in brackish water near the mouths of rivers while the females make their way up rivers to inland lakes and ponds, some as far as the headwaters of the Connecticut River.
When the eels reach two to four feet long and are between five and 20 years old they migrate downstream and head to the Sargasso Sea, where the females lay as many as a million eggs at a time before they die, having lost the ability to feed in their final months of life.
Jack Noon's ''Fishing in New Hampshire'' says that in the early 19th century weirs were set up in the Winnipesaukee River somewhere near where the current Tilton Police Station is located and eels were harvested during their down river migration in eel pots capable of holding four or five bushels. The harvest would last nearly a month, from late August deep into September.
Smithwood said that eel populations in New Hampshire have declined sharply since the early 19th century and that there are restrictions in place which prevent the harvest of small eels, known as elvers, which typically head up rivers in the state in early spring. State law prohibits harvesting eels shorter than six inches.
By contrast nearby Maine does have an open season for elvers, which runs from March 22 to May 31, and it has become the second largest catch after lobster, accounting for $39 million a year in revenue to that state's fishermen.
That's because the price for elvers has soared from $25 a pound six years ago to around $2,600 a pound ever since the Europe placed a moratorium on the export of eels in 2010.
The elvers are sold to places like China, Japan and Korea where they are raised in ponds until they are harvested.
In May of this year the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department arrested two men from Maine in Seabrook for harvesting eels in New Hampshire coastal waters.
A statement issued by the department following the arrests said that number of incidents of poaching migrating young eels have occurred in the region as the price they bring on foreign markets has escalated.
"It is a violation of the law to harvest these young eels in New Hampshire," said Conservation Officer Lt. Michael Eastman of the N.H. Fish and Game Department. "As this incident shows, we are aggressively enforcing that law, and perpetrators will face significant consequences."