RICHMOND TOWN — Thousands of baby glass eels have started their swim for Bermuda from the waters of Staten Island — and were counted by students for the fifth year in a row.
Students and Cub Scouts are taking part in the annual count of baby glass eels at 10 spots along the Hudson River and its tributaries.
Students from the St. Clare School and scouts from Troop 25 waded into the water Wednesday to collect eels in Staten Island's Richmond Creek, count them, then release them upstream to continue their journey.
Since the baby fish require good conditions to survive, the annual count serves as an indicator to the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Environmental Protection of how healthy the city's waterways are.
"You have to have good water quality, you have to have a good watershed, you've got to have smart development to make sure that there are good habitats for these animals," said Chris Bowser, who works for the Hudson River Estuary Program and Research Reserve and as a science educator for the DEC.
"If we can get healthy eel populations, we know something is going right."
The baby eels hatch in Sargasso Sea, close to Bermuda, and live in New York for up to 20 years before they return home to mate.
While they're approximately 2 to 3 inches in length when the students count them, they can grow to be between 1- and 2-feet long when fully mature, Bowser said.
This year, the migration started in March. Since then, more than 6,000 have been counted. On Wednesday, seven eels were collected.
The population of glass eels declined along the East Coast after water-quality degraded, but has spiked back up after the city spent more than $10 billion dollars to improve the cleanliness of its waterways, said Eric Landau, deputy commissioner for the DEP.
Last year, the students counted about 5,000 glass eels.
"That is a great testament to the constantly improving water quality in New York City's harbor," Landau said.
"As we see the numbers of eels increasing, and increasing so dramatically, it really confirms what we believe to be true — that the harbor water quality is better than it's been in generations."
While this year's numbers aren't final, Bowser said they're on track to be the highest since they started the count.
This year's eel-counting season has also been one of the longest because the weather started to get warmer sooner, allowing the baby fish to start their journey earlier, Bowser said.
Previous counts usually last about eight weeks, but students were able to start in early March and have continued for 10 weeks so far.
"We had an early season and we're looking at a long season," Bowser said. "Every piece of data we collect we learn something new. It's another piece of the puzzle."