Ottawa 'Eel Walk' advocates for endangered American Eel

People marched from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill, demanding more be done to boost populations of the American Eel in the Ottawa River.

Ottawa River populations have declined significantly over last 30 years

A group of activists walked a giant eel puppet from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill Monday to draw attention to its dwindling population in the Ottawa River. 0:33

Around 30 people gathered on Victoria Island Monday morning to advocate for the return of the endangered American Eel to the Ottawa River.

The event mixed art with activism, with attendees carrying windsocks decorated to look like as eels as they marched to Parliament Hill.

The marquee creation was an 8.2-metre-long replica of an eel, which had to be carried by six walkers.

Once abundant in the Ottawa River, eel populations have declined by as much as 99 per cent in the last 30 years.

Luc-Anne Salm, an artist and activist who helped organize the event, said she hoped the creativity of those who took part would foster awareness.

"Art has a role to play," she said, "It stimulates people's imagination. It helps people fall in love with this creature."

Walkers carry their wind sock eels, decorated before the journey to Parliament Hill. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

The goal of the walk was to both raise awareness of the eel's importance to both Indigenous and Canadian history and press the government to do more to save the species, said Larry McDermott, executive director of Plenty Canada.

The non-profit organization supports Indigenous peoples and other community groups in their work to protect the environment.

Hydroelectric dams blamed for decline

Activists and scientists have laid the blame for the eels' decline squarely at the feet of the hydroelectric dams that dot the Ottawa River.

The length of the eels — females can grow up to a metre long — puts them at particular risk of being killed by hydroelectric turbines. 

Since there are few ways for the eels to safely travel past the dams, their natural migration patterns are disrupted, McDermott said.

"With the American Eel, we have to change the way we produce power on our waterways," he said. "There really needs to be upstream and downstream passage."

Eels once made up 50 per cent of the wildlife in the Ottawa River. Today, they account for less than one percent of the ecosystem, according to the Canadian Wildlife Federation. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

Recovery strategy

Every American Eel starts its life in the Sargasso Sea, which overlaps with the infamous Bermuda Triangle. Juvenile eels catch a ride north on ocean currents and then migrate through Canadian waterways.

In 2013, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources, alongside Fisheries and Oceans Canada, published the "American Eel Recovery Strategy."

Eels were once a mainstay in the Ottawa River ecosystem, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the ecosystem's biomass and serving as important predators. They also played a significant role in transporting nutrients up the river when they migrated, according to the report.

They now account for less than one per cent of the river's biomass, said McDermott, who co-authored the report. 

Larry McDermott, executive director of Plenty Canada, delivered opening remarks at the Eel Walk on May 21, 2018. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

"Given the substantial barriers to migration posed by the dams in the lower reaches of the Ottawa River ... the low current abundance of eels in Pembroke waters of the Ottawa River is not surprising," the report said.

Eel significant in Indigenous, settler history

The eel served as a source of food and medicine for Indigenous peoples on the Ottawa River, McDermott said. Indigenous oral history and accounts from early settlers corroborate the eels' abundance in the area.

"There are historic accounts of this water system of the eels shimmering everywhere," he said. "The river was saturated with eels at certain times of the year."

Samuel de Champlain and his crew often relied on trade with Indigenous peoples for food while traversing the river — and eels were often included in the deals. 

Attendees opened the walk with a traditional smudge ceremony. The American Eel played an important role in Indigenous history, and was used as both food and as a source of medicine. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

Working together to increase biodiversity would be a significant step toward repairing the relationship between Canadian settlers and Indigenous peoples, Salm said.

"This was [a very important] creature for the First Nations people. It's part of reconciliation to do something about its continual demise," she said. 

"We have to do something."

Self-described artivist Luc-Anne Salm hopes the 8.2-metre-long eel made from bean bags and papier mâché will get people's attention. 0:32