skip to main content | skip to footer
North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - American Eel

Marine Fisheries

Web Content Display Web Content Display

AMERICAN EEL, Anguilla rostrata

8-point rule

eel

Life History

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a catadromous species, meaning they are born in saltwater, then migrate into freshwater as juveniles where they grow into adults before migrating back into the ocean to spawn. They require multiple habitats, including the ocean, estuaries, fresh water streams, rivers and lakes. Its catadromous life cycle requires migration back to the Sargasso Sea (a large portion of the western Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda and east of the Bahamas) to spawn, while spending most its life in brackish and freshwater river systems from South America to Canada. Larvae develop at sea and change from glass eels (transparent post-larval stage) into elvers (pigmented young eels) in nearshore ocean waters and estuaries. Elvers either remain in the estuary or migrate upstream. At approximately 2 years of age, they change to the yellow eel stage and resemble the adult form. This stage, on average, lasts five to 20 years. In the yellow phase, American eels are nocturnal, swimming and feeding at night on a variety of invertebrates and smaller fish and dead animal matter. American eels live in a variety of habitats, but they prefer areas where they can hide with soft bottom and vegetation. Female American eels can grow to 5 feet in length, and males usually reach about 3 feet. The mature silver eel life stage occurs at the time of downstream migration, when they leave the estuaries for the Sargasso Sea to spawn then die. This spawning migration occurs annually in the late summer and fall.

Fisheries

The average commercial landings from 2008 to 2017 was 55,014 pounds with an average dockside value of $133,971. In 2017, the commercial landings were 20,211 pounds with a dockside value of $11,839 (Figure 1). Commercial American eel landings in North Carolina have fluctuated over the years. In 1979 and 1980, more than 900,000 pounds of eels were landed; however, since the late 1980s, American eel landings have averaged less than 100,000 pounds.

Figure 1

There are no recreational landings data available for American eels, which are not typically a targeted species and are caught incidentally in the estuarine environment by recreational hook and line fishermen. American eels are popular bait for many important recreational fisheries such as striped bass.

Management

American eel is included in the North Carolina Fishery Management Plan for Interjurisdictional Fisheries, which defers to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Eel. American eel are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in state territorial seas (0 to 3 miles from shore) and coastal waters along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida. The initial fishery management plan was approved in 1999. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's American Eel Management Board, through various fishery management plan addendums, has implemented size and possession limits as well as pot mesh size requirements and seasonal gear closures. Most recently, Addendum IV established a coastwide catch cap that set up an automatic implementation of state-by-state commercial yellow eel quotas if the catch cap is exceeded (907,669 pounds coast wide). The initiation of the quota system depends on two triggers: 1) the coastwide catch cap is exceeded by more than 10 percent in a given year (998,438 pounds); or 2) the coastwide catch cap is exceeded for two consecutive years, regardless of percent over. Under the current plan North Carolina would receive an 11.8 percent allocation (107,054 pounds); however, in October 2017 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission American Eel Management Board initiated Draft Addendum V in response to concerns that the current management triggers do not account for annual fluctuations in landings, and the immediate implementation of state-by-state quotas would pose significant administrative challenges.

Stock Overview

  • Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2016
    • Overfishing: Unknown
    • Overfished: Depleted

The 2012 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission benchmark stock assessment was updated in 2017 with data from 2010-2016. The assessment update indicated the stock is at or near historical low levels due to a combination of historical overfishing, habitat loss, predation, turbine mortality at hydroelectric dams, environmental changes, toxins, contaminants and disease. Trend analyses of abundance indices indicated large declines in abundance of yellow eels during the 1980s through the early 1990s, with primarily neutral or stable abundance from the mid-1990s through 2016.

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducts the Beaufort Bridgenet Ichthyoplankton Sampling Program, a year-round egg and larval fish survey (ichthyoplankton) at Beaufort Inlet, which is used to develop a North Carolina juvenile abundance index for American eel (Figure 2). Data is only available for 2004 to 2013; however, sampling continues and the backlog of post-2013 samples will be available for use by resource managers in the future.

Figure 3

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries has no monitoring programs specifically designed to capture American eel; however, the North Carolina Estuarine Trawl Survey collects information on American eels caught incidentally. American eel catch data from the Estuarine Trawl Survey were used in the 2017 stock assessment update (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Research Needs

Research needs include gaining a better understanding of the species distribution and abundance, collection of biological information (age at length data), determining the recreational harvest (eels for bait), and a reliable stock assessment method.

Links

Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Fishery Management Plans, Amendments, Revisions & Supplements

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Stock Assessment Reports

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Contacts

For more information, contact Todd Mathes at Todd.Mathes@ncdenr.gov or 252-948-3872.

Print
Web Content Display Web Content Display
N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

NC logo

38337 FEEDBACK

Your input is valuable to us. Please send us your feedback.

What type of feedback would you like to send?*

Ask a Question Report a Problem Have a Concern Make a Comment

(If you would like us to respond please include your phone or e-mail.)

Your Question has been sent. Thank you!

An internal server error prevented Your Question from being sent.
Please try again later, or call Toll-Free (877) 623-6748 for immediate assistance.

Please complete all highlighted items

Your Problem has been sent. Thank you!

An internal server error prevented Your Question from being sent.
Please try again later, or call Toll-Free (877) 623-6748 for immediate assistance.

Please complete all highlighted items

Your Concern has been sent. Thank you!

An internal server error prevented Your Question from being sent.
Please try again later, or call Toll-Free (877) 623-6748 for immediate assistance.

Please complete all highlighted items

Your Comment has been sent. Thank you!

An internal server error prevented Your Question from being sent.
Please try again later, or call Toll-Free (877) 623-6748 for immediate assistance.

Please complete all highlighted items

*If you are a DENR employee with an I.T. issue, please submit a DOTS ticket.