When I met Miller in his Tokyo office, he ruefully acknowledged that he and Tsukamoto have come tantalizingly close to finding the parents of Japanese eel hatchlings. But, he said, "you could be 50 meters away and not find anything. It's an issue of scale—the ocean is huge. To get where eels are spawning, it's statistically very low probability. Almost impossible. You'd have to be very lucky." What's more, he added, every year that he and Tsukamoto go looking, they seem to run afoul of the elements. "I can't remember a single eel cruise when there hasn't been a typhoon that's caused us to change course. It's almost like Poseidon is trying to keep the eels secret."
That's the greatest beauty I find in eels: the idea of a creature whose very life beginnings can remain hidden from humans. It makes it all the harder for me to accept the thought that we may lose this creature before its life picture can be completed. Populations of American, European, and Japanese eels are all declining, some precipitously. As John Casselman, a biologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, told me, "It is truly a crisis. A crisis of concern."
In November 2004 two brothers, Doug Watts, a freelance journalist who lives in Augusta, Maine, and Tim Watts, a janitor at a college in Easton, Massachusetts, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the American eel, Anguilla rostrata, as a threatened, or even endangered, species. They were motivated by Casselman's documentation of the collapse of eel populations in the upper St. Lawrence River: From the mid-1980s to the middle of the past decade, the number of juveniles there fell by almost 100 percent. The region encompassing the upper St. Lawrence River system and Lake Ontario and its tributaries is North America's largest eel nursery, where it is thought that female eels alone once made up 50 percent of the inshore fish biomass.
One problem for the eels was the earlier construction of the Beauharnois and Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dams, which have blocked their migrations to and from the upper St. Lawrence River system and Lake Ontario. Even if a young eel, aided by fish ladders, succeeds in getting upriver, when she comes downriver as an adult, she may be sucked into a dam's electricity-generating turbines. "Some eels come out with their skin pulled off, like a sock off your foot," Doug Watts told me. The bigger the eel, the greater the danger. In New Zealand, where longfins grow to six feet or more, turbines mean certain death.