Nature (Season 31) – The Mystery of Eels

Air date: 04/17/2013

THIRTEEN’s Nature Uncovers The Mystery of Eels Airing April 17, 2013 on PBS


A writer journeys from New York’s Catskills to Maine, Japan and New Zealand to understand the eel


Here are some facts about the freshwater eel that might surprise you. It can swim backwards equally well as forwards; while highly sought after in Asia, it’s virtually ignored here in the U.S.; some can live over 100 years. Eels are the only fish that spawn in the middle of the ocean, but spend their adult lives in freshwater, the opposite of most migratory fishes, like salmon and shad; and they are a multibillion dollar business.

Eels have also been a source of fascination to writer, artist and conservationist James Prosek since childhood and he explains why when Nature unravels The Mystery of Eels airing Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). After the broadcast, the program will stream at

According to Prosek, who wrote and narrates the program, his introduction to the slimy, muscular fish occurred when fishing as a boy in the ponds and rivers of Connecticut. He would catch the beady-eyed eels by accident when fishing for something else. But when an old game warden explained that they were born thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, Prosek became hooked and determined to learn as much he could about the mysterious creatures.

Prosek’s quest, documented in his book Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish, began with a visit to fisherman Ray Turner in New York’s Catskills, who catches eels in his fish trap during their annual fall migration to the sea.  Having inherited the right from his father, Turner is just one of a few individuals permitted to operate an eel weir on the Delaware River.  Weirs are stone breakwaters that funnel water through a wooden rack designed to trap eels. Turner rebuilds his weir by hand every year and makes a living selling smoked eels and other fish.

The eel business in Maine operates on a much larger scale, with the price for baby eels, known as glass eels, hitting a record high of $2,600 a pound in 2012 due to the tremendous demand in Asia. Many are caught in early spring as they make their way upstream from the sea. The glass eels are shipped to China where they are raised to maturity in farms and distributed around the world. Due to declining eel populations, the U.S. government eventually shut down U.S. fisheries, except in Maine and South Carolina where there are small groups of licensed dealers.

The Japanese, who consume more than 130,000 tons of eels each year, believe eel meat beats summer fatigue and provides high levels of Vitamins A (which is good for the human skin) and E (which helps prevent aging). They also operate eel farms, but Prosek discovered that 80% of the eels eaten in Japan come from glass eels raised in China. So far, attempts in Japan to breed and raise eels have not been successful.

To the Maori in New Zealand, the eel is a symbol of nature which they equate with their culture. It was sometimes seen as a mythical being or guardian, but in New Zealand as elsewhere, the eel now needs its own guardian. Hydroelectric dams pose the greatest danger to adult eels on their migration back to the sea. The turbines chop them up. But conservationists, including the Maori, are trapping eels and releasing them downstream of the dams so many can reach the ocean and spawn.

Still, the mystery of where eels spawn in the ocean and how to capture that sight remains unsolved despite repeated attempts by scientists. How does James Prosek feel about that? He’s philosophical, concluding: “It’s refreshing that there are still some things in nature we don’t understand, and maybe we don’t need to.”

Nature is a production of THIRTEEN in association with WNET for PBS.  For Nature, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. The Mystery of Eels is a production of Red Line Films and THIRTEEN in co-production with Terra Mater Factual Studios in association with WNET.

Nature pioneered a television genre that is now widely emulated in the broadcast industry.  Throughout its history, Nature has brought the natural world to millions of viewers.  The series has been consistently among the most-watched primetime series on public television.

Nature has won almost 700 honors from the television industry, the international wildlife film communities, and environmental organizations, including 11 Emmys, three Peabodys and the first award given to a television program by the Sierra Club.  The series received two of the wildlife film industry’s highest honors: the Christopher Parsons Outstanding Achievement Award given by the Wildscreen Festival and the Grand Teton Award given by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.  Recently, Nature’s executive producer, Fred Kaufman, received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Media by the 2012 International Wildlife Film Festival. is the award-winning web companion to Nature featuring streaming episodes, filmmaker interviews, teacher’s guides, and more.

Major corporate support for the original public television broadcast of this NATURE program was provided by Canon U.S.A., Inc.  Additional support was provided by the Arnhold Family in memory of Clarisse Arnhold, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by the nation’s public television stations.




About WNET
In 2013, WNET is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of THIRTEEN, New York’s flagship public media provider. As the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to over 5 million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Need to Know, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings available on air and online. Pioneers in educational programming, WNET has created such groundbreaking series as Get the Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase and provides tools for educators that bring compelling content to life in the classroom and at home. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJ Today and MetroFocus, the multi-platform news magazine focusing on the New York region.




Close up of eel heads. Delaware River, Hancock, New York. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Long fin eel in New Zealand. South Island, New Zealand. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Long fin eel in New Zealand. New Zealand. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Migrating eels finding a way over gravel. New Zealand. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Migrating eels. New Zealand. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Young eels (elvers) among the rocks. Sebasticook River, Maine. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

James and Daniel Joe on New Zealands Mohaka River. Mohaka River, New Zealand. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

James Prosek at the river with eel fisherman, Ray Turner. Delaware River, Hancock, New York. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

James Prosek and the eel painting he created using the traditional Japanese art form called Gyotaku. Easton, Connecticut. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

James Prosek creates an eel painting using the traditional Japanese art form call Gyotaku. Easton, Connecticut. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Eel fisherman, Ray Turner, examines eels caught in his fish trap. Delaware River, Hancock, New York

Ray Turner looking out over the weir he maintains to trap eel. Delaware River, Hancock, New York. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN

Young eels being raised in an eel farm in Japan. Japan. Photo Credit: ©THIRTEEN