RICHMOND TOWN — Each year, thousands of baby eels leave their birthplace in the waters off Bermuda to swim north to the waters of New York.
For the third year in a row, Staten Island students were there to greet them.
Every spring, the city and state count how many of the baby fish — called glass eels — make their way to the Hudson River in 10 different spots in New York, including Staten Island's Richmond Creek.
Students from two schools and a Boy Scouts troop do a daily count of how many eels are caught in nets put out by the Hudson River Eel Project. On Tuesday a class from the St. Clare School in Great Kills joined workers from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to carry out the project.
"The big thing about eels being in the Richmond Creek Bluebelt is it kind of shows the water quality has improved by the number of eels that come down," said Jim Garin, director of engineering for the DEP. "They wouldn't be here if the water quality wasn't improving and it shows New York harbor and the Richmond Creek Bluebelt water is really working out well."
The population of eels across the East Coast declined over the years because of water-quality degradation, fishing and man-made barriers, but Garin said New York has seen an improvement because of storm and sewage system improvements and Bluebelts in the city.
"That's why these eels are here today," Garin said. "You wouldn't have found these eels here 10 years ago."
Last year, around 5,000 glass eels were counted at Richmond Creek, and students found 211 in the stream on Tuesday. Every day, a different group of students goes into the waters, opens the net, counts the eels, and released them upstream to continue their journey.
Students at the count said that the program taught them a lot about eels and taking care of the environment.
"It's good to take care of the eels," student Victoria Dando said."They're creatures so they should stay alive, they're good for the environment."
The count started in March, and will continue until the end of their migratory period in April, according to the DEP. Thousands have been counted already.
The baby eels hatch in the Sargasso Sea, close to Bermuda, live in New York for up to 20 years, passing by Staten Island along the way, before they return back to the Caribbean to mate, said Chris Bowser, project coordinator at the Hudson River Eel Project and a science educator for the DEC.
"Can you imagine swimming 1,200 miles to get here, spending 20 years, then swimming 1,200 miles to go back?" Bowser asked students. "That's a long way to go."