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Biodiversity Blog

 

Eel. It's what's for (Thanksgiving) dinner.

Turkey billboard
 Illustration: Nicole Elmer

Ah, Thanksgiving. We visit family, for better or for worse, slave for hours in the kitchen, gorge ourselves on football, and gather around a table to feast on a big fat roasted...eel?

Historians agree that the very first Thanksgiving dinners had not only the ubiquitous turkey, but other fowl, venison, and yes, eel. The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) was actually pretty significant to the early colonists, particularly during winter. Eels don’t like the cold, and they twist up into balls which makes them particularly vulnerable to being caught with fork-like spears. The story goes that Squanto, an English-speaking Patuxet, taught the colonists how to catch these slimy creatures, which provided a much-needed fatty protein source through tough long winters.

Traditionally, Native Americans would catch eels during autumn. They would build weirs in a river, create a V-shaped trap and then hope for a good rain. If that rain came, the eels could be caught in large numbers, smoked and dried to provide food during the winter. This way of building eel traps goes back at least 5000 years. 

American eels have a pretty amazing life cycle, one that involves a journey of thousands of miles. They are born in the Atlantic Ocean where they drift with the currents that lead them to fresh water. Here, they metamorphose into juveniles, then adults. They will stay here for many years, then journey back to the ocean to spawn then die. 

eel specimens
 Eel specimens in the Ichthyology Collection.

Whereas the eel populations were enormous several hundred years ago, they are endangered now, for many reasons. Dams are partly to blame, as they stop the migration routes into inland waterways. Hydrodams also wound or kill eels. Then there is just the demand for them in cuisine. For example, they are very popular in Japan and Japanese food. If you are a fan of sushi, you might have read “unagi” on the menu. That’s eel, and usually the American eel. To satisfy this culinary demand, juveniles are caught in river mouths, shipped out to farms in China, then flown to sushi restaurants all over the planet. This is one of the least sustainable market routes of any fish out there, whether farmed or wild. 

So maybe during the annual presidential pardon of a lucky turkey, maybe US presidents should pardon an eel too. 

Want to learn more about American eels? There is a display on them in UT’s Life Science Library.  You can also read about them here in this blog from the Ichthyology Collection (and see a video!)

SOURCES

Christie, Drew. "'A Thanksgiving Eel'." New York Times, 19 Nov. 2012, p. NA(L). Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A308970679/OVIC?u=txshracd2598&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=e843d59f. Accessed 4 Nov. 2021.

Cohen, Adam. “American Eels in the Fish Collection.” Biodiversity Center blog. Aug 1, 2018. 

"Pass the cranberries--and eel." New York Times Upfront, vol. 144, no. 4, 24 Oct. 2011, p. 5. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A271973805/OVIC?u=txshracd2598&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=c083049c. Accessed 4 Nov. 2021.

Prosek, James. “Give Thanks for...Eel?” New York Times. Nov 24, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/opinion/25prosek.html 

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