RICHMOND TOWN — Every spring, thousands of baby eels leave their Caribbean birthplace, swimming north to the waters of New York — including streams on Staten Island.
Last year, the city and state started to count how many of the fish — known as glass eels — made their way to the Hudson River. The survey took in Staten Island's Richmond Creek.
Students from the St. Clare School in Great Kills were on hand Tuesday to help workers from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Environmental Conservation carry out the Hudson River Eel Project.
“Kids come and they help us count glass eels,” said Carter Strickland, commissioner of the DEP. “It’s taking place in an area that we brought back from really severe environmental degradation by building out sewers and building this natural wetland area and stream to handle storm water.
“(The eels are) an indicator that we’re doing pretty well and nature’s coming back."
Last year, more than 12,000 glass eels were counted in Richmond Creek, and almost 85,000 in waters around New York. On Tuesday, the students found 13 eels. The baby eels are about an inch long, but they can grow to more than a meter.
"Slimy!" the elementary students said Tuesday, when asked how the eel felt.
To catch the eels, students reach into the water with a net, said Chris Bowser, project coordinator at the Hudson River Eel Project and a science educator for the DEC, who also works for the Cornell University's Water Resource Institute.
“Every day of the week a different group comes down and checks a funnel-shape net for baby juvenile eels,” he said. “The net is opened and the students count the eels, collect them and then release them further upstream, above the nearest dam, so that they can carry on with their journey.”
The count started at the beginning of April. The groups of students will continue their count until the end of the month.
The eels in the creek, which hatch in the Sargasso Sea, close to Bermuda, live in New York for up to 20 years before they mature and head back to the Caribbean to mate, Bowser said.
“They’re going to go into upstream habitats throughout the watersheds, here in the Bluebelt and elsewhere in other watersheds,” he said. “They may stay there for five to 10 to 20 years before they migrate back down river, back out to the Sargasso Sea as breeding adults.”
The groups count the eels because the migratory fish are important indicators of the health of the oceans, rivers and watersheds, Bowser said. They also check to see how weather, tidal cycles and other things can effect their migration.
And these eels are not liable to threaten the 7-train extension with their electric charge anytime soon. A member of the MTA's board said recently he though electric eels caused a threat to the construction — baffling experts who said that type of fish lives nowhere near New York.
“This is not an electrical eel,” he said. “These are not electric, these are a totally different species of animal.
“You don’t have to worry about these animals here being harmful to people in any way,” he said.