American eels, like American shad, were once a staple in the diets of Lancaster County residents but have nearly disappeared from the Susquehanna River.
Now, three county locations are featured in a new effort to restore eels above the dams that doomed their migratory runs from the Atlantic Ocean.
Last fall, 21,094 juvenile eels newly arrived from the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda were captured in Octoraro Creek at the base of the Pine Grove low-head dam in Little Britain Township.
Slithering young 4-6-inch eels were there because the Octoraro Creek is one of the few freshwater streams the eels can swim up before hitting a stone wall in the form of the Conowingo Dam.
Using a simple contraption that’s pretty much a sliding board with rushing water from a hose, young juveniles swim up the device and are captured.
Some 376 of the juvenile eels were trucked above the Conowingo, Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams and released back into the Susquehanna at the mouth of the Conewago Creek near Falmouth, Conoy Township.
The remainder were released at the forks of Muddy Creek in York County or into Octoraro Lake in Lancaster and Chester counties.
Both Exelon’s Conowingo Dam in Maryland and the Muddy Run Pumped Storage Project in Martic and Drumore townships have been required to finance eel restoration projects as conditions for getting new operating licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Conowingo Dam blocks migration. Some adult eels are killed years later when they swim through dam turbines while trying to swim back to the ocean to reproduce.
And Muddy Run sucks eels from the river in water intakes, killing many of them. It is also believed that fluctuating water levels caused by the water intake could disrupt eel migration.
State and federal officials have recently discovered a new reason for pushing for eel restoration. American eels serve as the prime host for a freshwater mussel that is an important filter for removing nutrients and sediment from river systems.
The little eastern elliptio mussel could be a help in efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Some 17,000 juvenile eels, called elvers, were stocked in the Conestoga River in 2008 but releases were discontinued after a followup survey the next year failed to find any surviving eels.