RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR) — The bald eagle is the symbol of the United States, but some might argue that maybe it should be the eel.

More specifically, the American eel.

Baby eels, known as elvers. (Photo courtesy: Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

American eels are native to Virginia. They hold a place in history as a fish that helped to feed early America. Native Americans ate them. Colonists ate them. The Founding Fathers definitely ate them. Eels were a staple in the diets of colonial America, and one of the primary sources of protein.

Fast forward 250 years and we don’t eat eels as much anymore. However, they are still vital to our ecosystem, and their numbers have been on the decline. That’s why giving them a little assistance could go a long way to helping them survive and thrive.

Alan Weaver is the Fish Passage Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). He oversees the operation of the fish passage at Bosher’s Dam on the James River near Richmond.

“The American eel is actually a catadromous fish,” said Weaver during a recent visit to Bosher’s Dam. “Catadromous means they actually spawn in the ocean and then they move into freshwater to grow out, to mature.”

Young American eels, known as elvers, return to a number of streams in Virginia, including the James River. They live and mature in those streams for 15 to 20 years before returning to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean to spawn and end their life cycle. Bosher’s Dam blocks their path upstream. The eels move through the fish passage, a narrow construction of chambers that provides a pathway around and above the dam. Once past the dam, those eels can swim all the way to Lynchburg.

“This fishway, this Bosher’s Dam fishway is a pathway for the American eel elvers to work their way upstream,” said Weaver gesturing to the gate that leads out into the river at the top of the dam.

Virginia DWR Fish Passage Coordinator Alan Weaver at the Bosher’s Dam Fish Passage on the James River. (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

American eels are vital to the health of the James. They are a top-line predator that keeps fish and other aquatic populations in check. In turn, they serve as food for a variety of fish, birds, and animals, and even humans. Their survival is important.

“We’re trying to formulate a way to estimate how many eels move through the fishway,” Weave said. “We do know it actually passes eels, which is good and another positive reason for having this fishway here.”