Prosek, Eels, Conservation

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When we invited James Prosek to Kerala it was in part due to his artistic sensibility with eels, and a year after that invitation we gave that peculiar but enchanting sensibility more attention.  But by then we had already noticed his bird work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which Seth had watched as it went up, and his family went to inspect at the time of his graduation from Cornell. And so while Prosek has a long history with aquatic conservation Raxa Collective had a new view of Prosek that gravitated to his work with birds.

We are now glad to be reminded of his aquatic passions, in a blog post about conservation by Silvia Killingsworth, the managing editor of The New Yorker, where Prosek features as one of several consulted experts on the fate of the “lowly” eel, which turns out to be much more fascinating than expected (do read the post from start to finish for both conservation and foodie reasons):

book_eels-lg…Both the Japanese and European species have been listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

And yet, according to James Prosek, an artist, naturalist, and the author of the book “Eels,” the American eel will never be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The E.S.A, Prosek told me last week, “works well for creatures that could go down to a population of six hundred, and eels will never get down to that. Maybe a million, and that won’t be enough to sustain collective consciousness”—it won’t sound bad enough to make the public care. But if the American eel population gets down to even a million, it will be in grave danger, as will its ecosystem. Prosek likens the threat against the eel to the fate of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in North America, before it went extinct in 1914. Eels once accounted for twenty-five per cent of the total fish biomass of East Coast rivers and streams, and dozens of other animals depend on the eel. In the Susquehanna River, they are prey for osprey and raccoons and a ride upriver for the larvae of freshwater mussels, which hitch onto them before settling in and getting down the business of water filtration.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get worked up about eels the way we do for pandas or salmon. “Their sliminess and association with the snake and the phallus, as well as a general tendency to stir human uneasiness, have made eels a tough species to champion,” Prosek writes in his book. Freshwater eels are rather jolie laide as far as fish go: they lack pelvic fins, some species have no pectoral fins, and their dorsal, anal, and caudal fins are fused into one long ribbon framing the length of their bodies. Despite having fins and scales, eels are not kosher, because their scales cannot be removed cleanly. Their bodies are covered in a mucosal slime, making them near impossible to grasp or impale (most eel spears have tines). The average American fisherman is more likely to throw an eel back or use it as bait than to keep it for food…

Read the whole post here.

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