A group of teenagers linger near the Hudson River on the banks of the Fall Kill Creek behind the Mid-Hudson Discovery Museum in Poughkeepsie. Just beyond them in the water, there’s a blanket of black fish netting attached to metal stakes, shaped like a cylinder with wings, driven into the middle of the tributary bed. To the untrained eye, it’s a typical scene in an urban setting—kids seemingly up to no good and a pile of trash in the water, visible only during the tidal estuary’s low tide. Easy to pass by.
“It’s a Fyke net,” Desmond says proudly to a few curious onlookers out for a stroll. “We’re monitoring the eel population in the Hudson River.” Desmond and the group of students from Poughkeepsie High School wait for their cue to put on the waders and get started. Some are eager, the veterans. Others are anxiously wondering what to expect.
For the 16th year, efforts are well underway up and down the Hudson River estuary to find juvenile American eels, called glass eels at that stage in their development, in creeks and streams as a part of the Hudson Eel Project. The Eel Project, a citizen science project, is run by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), coordinated by their Hudson River Estuary Program and the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, and staffed by volunteers. The Fall Kill location is one of 12 sites being monitored from Staten Island up to Albany this year. Students from Poughkeepsie High School sign up to volunteer at least one day a week for eight weeks in the spring.
“You three head into the water and show the first-timers how to work the net,” DEC Education Coordinator Chris Bowser yells over to Desmond and the others. Bowser has been at the helm of the program since its inception in 2008. His energy and enthusiasm for the work is contagious, and he is committed to partnering with schools, organizations, research institutions, and the general public up and down the river to collect data on glass eels and turn it around to send off to larger research institutions.
“There are essentially two main goals of the project,” he says, knee-deep in the creek, regarding the Hudson Eel Project’s twin social and scientific objectives. “Scientifically, we are trying to obtain a census of migratory eel populations that travel from the ocean to the estuary and into tributaries. How many eels do we even have?”
The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a freshwater species native to North America and the continent’s only eel species, out of 800, that live in the Hudson River. Looking back even just 50 years, the American eel population has declined overtime, according to Bowser. In 2014, the American eel was added to the International Union for Conservation Network’s Red List of endangered species due to overfishing, dams and barriers to aquatic passage, water pollution, and, of course, the environmental impacts of climate change. “Eels are considered a delicacy in most parts of the world,” Bowser says. “Chances are, if you’ve had sushi, you’ve had eel on your plate.”
For as long as eels have been important culturally, economically, and ecologically as both a predator and prey in the food web, they’re also still mysterious. “Sure some people think they are eerie looking—long, slimy and wiggly, but there’s also much we don’t know about this fish in terms of reproducing,” says Bowser.
Eels exhibit a catadromous life cycle and most scientists believe that all American and European migrate from the Sargasso Sea to freshwater habitats where they spend most of their lives, before returning to the sea to spawn. But despite incredible efforts over centuries to understand more about the reproductive lives of eels, so far no one has solved the mystery. “How do eels reproduce? That’s the question. And so far, nobody has been able to get to the bottom of it,” says Bowser. The lack of information has perpetuated myths behind the creature and drawn the attention of researchers and theorists ranging from Aristotle and Freud to modern day scientists and authors. This slippery mystery even spawned a delightful episode of Radiolab.
What makes the Hudson Eel Project distinctive is the credibility it receives. “Between Florida and Maine, there are researchers doing what we are doing. Counting a census of the American eel year after year,” says Bowser. “What makes us different is that we are using community science to build a bigger picture of the eel. The DEC has citizens involved. You don’t see that in a lot of other states.” Currently, New York is the only state using data collected through citizen science, according to Bowser. Data collected through the Eel Project is sent to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. “We are very happy that our protocols have been deemed worthy of scientific inclusion,” he says.
And how is the eel census going? “Through this research, we are seeing a bumpy but a little bit of an increase. – looking at the big picture,” says Bowser. “Year over year, data is variable, and there are so many factors with the Hudson River estuary, but in general, there is an upward trend in the population of eels.”
Of equal importance to any citizen science program as the data gathered is the education and community engagement opportunity, shares Highland middle school teacher and researcher Cornelia Harris. “Citizen science pulls back the curtains on the profession of science and lets people engage with science. It allows everybody to have a seat at the table,” she says.
Harris recently completed her PhD focusing on developing urban adolescents’ sense of place using nature-based citizen science programs. After having experience on the research end of the Hudson River Eel Project at the Cary Institute for 10 years, Harris realized that there was much more to the program. “I was very focused on a science understanding when working at the Cary Institute,” she says. “I realized there’s a lot more than science that kids are taking away from the project. There’s an emotional piece. It’s a positive connection—a sense of place—that students then have with their community.”
The Eel Project provides an opportunity for students in Poughkeepsie to have repeated experiences outdoors and in a place that’s familiar, but still a little bit different, according to Harris. “As an educator, this is where kids get the best connection to their surroundings,” she says.
“A lot of people experience the Hudson River as a backdrop. It’s the scenery, it’s pretty. But most of us don’t go into these creeks and streams regularly, if at all. I think even many people don’t know that it is a tidal river and that it has hundreds of organisms that make it such a dynamic and vital place.”
Through her research with the students at the Fall Kill Creek, Harris found that students developed a sense of empathy for the eels and also a connection to their community through the program. “If you build more connection and empathy to a place, you will have more pro-environmental behaviors,” she says. “I saw this with the students. They developed a sense of care for the organism and the places that they live.”
By now, it’s well-documented that kids, particularly teenagers, don’t spend as much time outside as in the previous generations, leading to a long list of negative mental, social, and emotional consequences . In his popular 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase, “nature deficit disorder” shedding light on the reasons why this problem exists— and suggesting that more connections and physical contact with nature as a solution. Harris’s research is significant because it confirms that there are solutions right here in our backyard.
Urban areas, like Poughkeepsie, are typically at a greater disadvantage due to lack of green space and issues of accessibility and perceived safety, making it difficult for dwellers to connect to their surroundings. Of the eel sampling sites in the Hudson Valley, the Fall Kill location is the most distinctive based on its urban setting and proximity to public schools, says Poughkeepsie High School Science teacher Mark Angevine. “Volunteers participating in the project have an easier time accessing the Fall Kill location, eliminating certain barriers that are common at other locations. Most, if not all, students participating can walk to get here,” says Angevine.
Angevine has been a public school science teacher for 23 years and has helped to coordinate student participation with the Eel Project for the past 14. “Some students find themselves at the Fall Kill to earn more credits, some join for a new experience, and others are looking to be outside,” says Angevine. “A lot of these kids are in good standing, but it’s important to know that we will take any student who is interested in coming out.” Angevine has worked with parole officers in the past to make sure every student has the opportunity.
Typically 40 to 50 students from PHS participate in the program each year, devoting one hour a week for six to eight weeks from April through May. Since the pandemic, like other after-school programs nationwide, numbers are generally down—by about half. “But the kids that are coming are really dedicated,” says Angevine. “They will stop me in the hall and hold themselves accountable. The Eel Project allows us to get outside of our four walls and get to know each other in a different environment. It’s an opportunity for kids who don’t have the easiest time in school to be a part of something. They are still kids—they want to participate and be a part of something.”
While Desmond and the rest of the group make sure they’ve collected all of the glass eels in water-filled buckets, other students count the eels in groups of 10, making data collection easier. “When I was younger,” Desmond shares, “I never came here. My mom was nervous to let me go outside and play in this creek. She was worried it was too dirty or would make me sick. But I like coming out here, especially since the pandemic. It’s good to be in nature and take a break from video games.”
There’s a There, There
“If you care about something, you’re willing to protect it,” says Harris. The Eel Project has been an important part of thousands of Hudson Valley residents’ lives, and some students who join the project during high school, like Harris, end up studying science at the college level and even landing careers in the field of conservation or environmental education. “I don’t necessarily think the Eel Project is changing anybody. But it’s a stepping stone across the street,” says Bowser.
Different places conjure up different emotions and memories. People perceive the same city or neighborhood in different ways depending on familiarity and experiences they have with the space. “I do come back here when I can, even when the nets aren’t in. I worry about the eels, but also, it’s nice to walk down here and be outside, under the sun, and in nature,” said Desmond.
*Some names have been changed.