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Friday, January 04, 2013

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish:

I love books like this.  Take some obscure or mundane topic or subject and dissect it to the nth degree.  I doubt if anyone reading this really has a fondness for those slippery, slimy creatures, and yet it turns out they are singularly fascinating. “The freshwater eel, of the genus Anguilla, evolved more than fifty million years ago, giving rise to fifteen separate species. Most migratory fish, such as salmon and shad, are anadromous, spawning in freshwater and living their adult lives in salt water. The freshwater eel is one of the few fishes that does the opposite, spawning in the sea and spending its adulthood in lakes, rivers, and estuaries—a life history known as catadromy (in Greek ana- “means “up” and cata- means “down,” the prefixes suggesting the direction the fish migrates to reproduce).* But among catadromous fishes, the eel is the only one that travels to the depths of the oceans so far offshore. . . .No one has ever been able to find a spawning adult or witness a freshwater eel spawning in the wild. For eel scientists, solving the mystery of eel reproduction remains a kind of holy grail.”  And they determinedly try to return to their ocean origins.  Place some in an aquarium and they will try every way possible to squirm their way out.  If there is no way, they die.

Interesting people abound.  Ray, for example, a hermit (or recluse, if you prefer) who lives in a shack off the Delaware river and has a permit, which he inherited from his father, to operate an eel weir.  Every year  (he  has a degree in engineering) he carefully rebuilds the stone weir, repositioning the stones into walls (every year they are destroyed by ice and flooding.)   All in preparation for the September run. A good year will yield 2,500 eels weighing on average .85 pounds each. He puts them in salt to kill them then turns them in a cement mixer filled with gravel to get the slime off, guts them with a knife and hot-smokes them to restaurants and passersby saving a few for personal eating.  Fascinating.

Eels are relentless in their efforts to return to their "ocean womb."  Just try keeping some in an aquarium sometime.  They'll be all over your floor.  In New Zealand, where the Maori have a long symbiotic relationship with eels, they have been known to roll up in balls to get across land masses and try to get through hydraulic dam generators.   Tradition has it they will live for centuries waiting for some typhoon to wash them out to sea from some land-locked pond or lake. For the Maori, it's one of the highest sources of protein for them so when the British, in the guise of the Acclimatization Society stocked everything with trout only to discover eels love trout,  they embarked on a vast "kill the eels" program, with detailed instructions on how best to do it on every fishing license.   The result was much the same as the campaign that killed off most of the buffalo.

Of course there were unintended consequences.  Turns out killing the eels meant the trout, having no natural predatory exploded in population. "The trout in eel-free rivers had become more numerous, yes, but the average size was much smaller. In the 1950s, a biologist named Max Burnett studying the interaction of trout and eels in the streams of Canterbury discovered that the eel, maligned and needlessly slaughtered, was actually in part responsible for the now world-famous trout fishing in New Zealand. By preying on the trout, the eel was culling a population that soon became overpopulated and stunted without them. With the eels in the rivers, the trout were fewer but much larger. Burnett’s work showed that the presence of eels was beneficial and single-handedly turned around public opinion of them. The killing stopped. "  And now New Zealand is again celebrated for its trout fishing.

That doesn't mean the Maori can't be cruel to the eels: " People who smoke eel usually leave the skin on the fish but remove the unappetizing slime with salt, ash, or detergent. Even Ray, who had worked in slaughterhouses his whole life, admitted their method was cruel—removing their protective slime while suffocating them.* The eels reacted by writhing and rolling in the dry detergent, trying to use their tails to get it off their bodies, but it only spread the caustic powder. When the eels were dead Ray rubbed them down with a sugar sack to remove any leftover slime, snipped their tails to bleed them, and hung them by their heads. "

Let's be clear; I wouldn't be caught dead preparing or eating eel (more on death from preparing eel in a bit.)  But it does have healthful benefits: "Eel meat has well-known health-giving properties.* It is high in vitamins A and E, containing four times more vitamin A than cheese and eight times more than egg, six times more vitamin E than cheese and three times more than egg. Vitamin A is good for human skin. Vitamin E helps prevent aging. Eel is also rich in fish oils that contain antioxidants to aid the immune system and fight sickness. Because of its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, eel has been found to help prevent type 2 diabetes. A native of Kyoto told me, “They have a saying in Kyoto—that the girls have beautiful skin because they eat eel.”

Well, maybe.  As note above, preparing eel comes with several risks.  The blood contains a strong neurotoxin so getting it into one's blood stream through a cut or opening in the skin can cause death. One cubic centimeter of eel blood injected into a rabbit, "causes instant convulsions and death."  That's one reason why it's always served smoked or cooked and never raw.  Whoopi-do.

Shades of John McPhee (high praise, indeed)


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