Every spring when baby eels drift into the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic, then swim like mad up tributary rivers and creeks toward fresh water, Troy Tuckey is waiting for them.
The researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point sets up Irish elver boxes at four critical points along major rivers to capture, count, measure, weigh and release the babies — called glass eels for their thin, translucent bodies, about the width of a pencil lead.
It's a survey he's conducted for the past 13 years on the James, York and Rappahannock rivers, on the lookout for early warning signs the species is in trouble.
In recent years, signs in Virginia and elsewhere indicate it is.
"The American eel was one of the most abundant fish species," Tuckey said, stretching back to when Native Americans taught early European settlers at Jamestown how to "stomp" eels out of the mud.
But last year a coastwide benchmark stock assessment called the American eel population in U.S. waters "depleted." It blamed an array of factors, including overfishing, predation, turbine deaths from hydroelectric dams, changes in the food web, pollution and disease. Fluctuating market prices can also cause commercial landings to flounder.
The Chesapeake Bay has typically yielded 63 percent of the annual U.S. commercial harvest of American eel, Tuckey said. But in 2007 commercial landings in Virginia and Maryland represented only 52 percent.
"There are lots of different data sources that show that abundances are down," said Tuckey.