When Does American Eels Spawn?

Written by in Fishing
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

There is a well known saying that humans are creatures of habit. The American eel is no different as their migration habits remain the same every year to spawn at the same time every year like clockwork.

So when do American eels spawn? American eels spawns at the same time every year during the winter months. They follow the same patterns and spawn at the exact same place in the Sargasso Sea. There are certain times that they spawn and their migration habits remain the same from year to year for a very easy timeline.

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Some animals do have very unusual spawning habits, but the American eel is one that I find particularly interesting. Sure enough, the American eel is definitely a creature of habit keeping up the same timeline of spawning every year.

When The American Eel Spawns

American Eel Spawning:

  • During silver eel stage (full grown adult)
  • Migrates during winter months
  • Spawns and dies in the same place

The fact that American eels will travel to one specific location at the same time every year to spawn, and just automatically know where to go each time, is quite incredible.

One thing you can say about the American eel is that it is definitely a very consistent creature. It follows a very specific migration pattern, which scientists refer to as catadromous, and after it spends its life sprinkled along the Atlantic coast of North America living in rivers and ponds, hiding from the sun and from fishers, it always returns home to where it began.

The American eel spawns during a certain time of year and during a certain point in its lifetime. First of all, the American eel will spawn during the winter months, which is around the time of its migration back to the Sargasso Sea.

American eels live their lives for up to 40 years in mainly freshwater areas, such as rivers, ponds, and lakes along the Atlantic coast. It is not until they reach the final stage of their lives that they prepare for spawning.

Where The American Eel Spawns

Although scientists are not entirely sure why this happens, the American eel spawns in the Sargasso Sea. 

Like clockwork, the mature eel migrates from their freshwater habitats along the Atlantic Coast, through the ocean and to the two million square miles of warm water in the North Atlantic between the West Indies and the Azores.

Due to the fact that the American eel breeds in the same place every time, this behavior perpetuates a single breeding population, preventing the distinctions sometimes found in species that live in different geographic areas.

Right on schedule every year, the American eel moves through a very specific migration pattern where the spawn as they reach the Sargasso Sea

The Sargasso Sea:

  • Eel eggs drift with the Gulf Stream to reach the Atlantic Coast
  • Move inland through tidal rivers to live in ponds, lakes and other freshwater areas
  • Return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn as silver eels

American Eel Stages of Development

Stages:

  • Leptocephali
  • Glass eels
  • Elvers
  • Yellow eels
  • Silver eels

The egg phase of American eels is known as leptocephali. This process includes the eel eggs drifting along with the ocean current until they finally reach the Atlantic coast.

The larvae stage, or glass eel stage, comes next. This is where they develop fins and the features of adult eels.

The stage where the eels migrate to brackish waters and have grown again to be about four inches long is called the elver stage. Shortly after, they become yellow eels and begin to mature, becoming mature and nocturnal. During this phase, they will swim and feed at night.

Additionally, yellow eels will live in freshwater, brackish waters, or marine waters over the next three to 40 or more years. The spawning phase where they become male or female is called the silver eel stage. Soon, they will return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and later die.

When the eels return to the place that they were born, this is where they spawn new eels and proceed to pass on while the new eel larvae migrate to the freshwater areas along the Atlantic coast and carry on the lifecycle of the American eel.

The Natural Habitat of American Eels

The American eel lives off of the Atlantic coast of North America, as it is easy to get to from its spawning area in the Sargasso Sea.

They can be found all the way from Greenland, through Canada, the United States and through the Caribbean islands all the way down to Trinidad. 

They find themselves in freshwater rivers and ponds in these areas, as well as long estuaries and marine waters.

However, things haven’t been very easy for the American eel in recent years. The population of American eel has been steadily declining over the last few years due to a number of factors. 

One of those is the loss of habitat. The American eel has suffered a loss of habitat due to several factors.

American Eel Threats:

  • Dams and other obstructions in rivers. These obstructions are causing some eels, particularly silver females migrating downstream, die in the turbines of hydropower plants.
  • Contaminants in the water very much contribute to the decreased numbers of American eel
  • A parasite which has been introduced to American waters in recent years affects the eels swim bladder and has negative effects on their return to the Sargasso Sea.

Many fisheries have now listed American eels as non-sustainable and commercial fishing in them has been banned in some, but not all, cases.

However, individual states have their own rules when it comes to fishing eel. In Maryland, for example, the minimum size in nine inches and the closed season is from September to January. 

Delaware, on the other hand, has no closed season.

To tie this up, American Eels will always follow the exact same migration patterns every year at the same time. Their life cycle is essentially a full circle, because they start and end their lives at the identical location in which they were born.

Throughout all of their phases of growing, from hatching to glass eels, and their final adult stage once they have become silver eels, they remain one of the most consistent creatures that can be found in nature.

FAQ About American Eels

Is anything being done to conserve the natural habitat of American eels?

Since migration to the Sargasso Sea is essential for their survival, removing barriers will help the American eel at least retain its current population. Additionally, eel ladders are installed in some areas, which are designed to allow eels and other fish to swim over barriers using an ascending ramp in order to keep their migration patterns flowing.

What is the name for a fish that matures in freshwater?

American eel is usually considered catadromous fish. This means that they spawn in ocean water, go to freshwater to mature, and return to ocean water to spawn and die. The opposite of this would be anadromous fish, which spawn in freshwater, mature in ocean water, and then return to freshwater to spawn and die.

Can I Catch an American Eel?

Yes, you can. You can hook an eel or catch it with a net. Through experience, they're easier to trap than fish, but trapping is illegal in many areas of the United States. It's not terribly hard to bait and hook an eel with an eel hook and a healthy amount of patience.

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