Source: National Estuarine Research Reserve Association

Mysterious, nocturnal, and endangered, young American eels (aka “glass eels”) are marathon migrators that travel more than 1,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea to coastal estuaries along the United States. When they reach the Hudson River, community members are waiting to count them. Since 2008, thousands of New Yorkers have helped catch, count, and release more than one million juvenile eels. Now thanks to a collaboration between the Hudson River and the Jacques Cousteau Reserves, citizens of New Jersey can join the fun.

“We’ve learned that the reasons young people want to volunteer for this is that they can spend time with friends, and be outside—it feels good to be on and in the river,” says Chris Bowser, education coordinator for the Hudson River Reserve, which is a core partner on the Hudson River Eel Project. “People realize eels are not just cool fish, they’re concrete reminders that we live in a larger connected world. That’s a great thing for people to realize and discover.”

With a transfer grant from the NERRS Science Collaborative, educators and scientists from both Reserves and Stockton University are bringing this community wildlife monitoring program to the Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary in New Jersey. They are leveraging best practices honed over a decade in New York to create eel mops (structures that mimic suitable habitat), establish New Jersey monitoring and field work sites, hold trainings with volunteers and teachers, and develop outreach materials and tools.

“Inviting the volunteers to help with this project meant a lot to us,” says Kaitlin Gannon, education coordinator at the Jacques Cousteau Reserve and project lead. “This was the first time we had a group at the Reserve since the pandemic began. They helped us at various stages of making the eel mops and visiting potential glass eel collection sites. They are also our main end users, so it was important that they were involved from the beginning.”

With their first community monitoring effort planned for spring 2024, the Jacques Cousteau Reserve hopes this program will strengthen relationships between the Reserve and surrounding communities, as well as provide useful information about the American eel (Anguilla rostrata) to fisheries managers.

“This project will also benefit K-12 teachers and students; research application and outdoor hands-on experiences are important components for student learning,” says Sarah Mount, science educator at the Hudson River Reserve and project collaborative lead. “Opening eel monitoring field work to students will give them the chance to practice real-world scientific methods while creating long lasting memories with their peers.”

Future end users include the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Bureau of Marine Fisheries. While collecting data on glass eels is not the focus of this project, it could contribute to further scientific understanding of the species. Learn more about the project here.