Patch.com featured the field research of political science graduate student, Theresa Pellecchia.
It’s eel season in the Hudson and though that might not have you excited, there is one local grad student who has fallen in love with these slithery creatures of our waterways.
Theresa Pellecchia, from Brewster, is doing her master’s thesis project for Pace University on eels through a program sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Citizen scientists are currently studying eels, as they do annually, in various tributaries of the Hudson River.
Every day at low tide for months—from mid-March to early June—Pellecchia visits the Pocantico where it cuts through DeVries playground to gather, count and move the baby eels her so-called “fyke” net has caught in the night. The light-sensitive eels only travel at night and the large net that is embedded across a third of the stream has holes small enough to only catch the smallest ones. Bigger eels, she said, are there, they just aren’t getting caught.
The eels, supposedly born in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea (this is only suspected and has never been proven), journey all the way here en route to the fresh water where they will spend much of their lives. Once they hit fresh water, some of the all-male young will turn female, “we hope,” Pellecchia said with two enthusiastic thumbs up. They will return after about three decades to spawn in the Sargasso, and die.
In the Pocantico, in the brackish water (a mix of fresh and salty), Pellecchia catches one-year-olds who are kept from progressing further by the dam in Philipsburg Manor. If they can’t get to fresh water, there’s no chance they’ll turn female and therefore reproduce.
If you don’t think eels are important, Pellecchia will have you convinced. They are an essential element of the ecosystem and the natural food chain that humans are messing with. American eels, Pellecchia said, are surpassing the depleted Japanese eels in the sushi market. Eels caught largely in Maine actually get shipped to Japan, repackaged and sold back to the States.
Meanwhile, right here in our region, the eel population seems to be on the decline for other unknown causes. The DEC and its volunteers are trying to figure out why.
The babies don’t much resemble the black five-foot creature that these things can become. They are called glass eels for the first phase of their lives, and are transparent. “You can see their little hearts beating,” Pellecchia said. On the day we met with her, she catches eight babies and four “elvers” (kid eels), a pretty good haul. Her record here is 30 eels, while some sites under the DEC study have been known to catch hundreds or even thousands a day.
Pellecchia is testing the conditions that may make our site particularly slow for the eels – she takes air and water temperature and monitors water quality. She wonders too if the former GM plant has something to do with it.
Of course, while other eel watchers might have the luxury of a more woodsy and private locale, Pellecchia is just feet away from the popular redone playground. Kids wander over and ooh and ahh (or ick) at her eels. She is a natural teacher and gets everyone excited about her research, as she mucks about with her companion Rob Benitez (school policy requires she always bring a buddy for this work) in waders and scoops up eels out of the funnel of a net with her bare hands. Then she displays them to the small crowd of little people. For added viewer fun, she takes them out of the blue bucket and places them in a clear baggy where the glass eels and bigger kids glisten and squirm.
Then it’s off to the Manor restoration where she releases her catch above the manmade dam. From there it’s onwards and upwards, upstream to fresh water. “We’ll help them out a little bit,” Pellecchia said as she released her little bag of eels above the dam, “And…there they go.”