American Eel Splash
American Eels Glass eels and elvers find themselves stuck beneath a dam. © Tim Watts

Stories in New Hampshire

Journey of the Glass Eel

One tiny creature spurs big change in reconnecting our rivers to the sea

You have to look carefully, but if you stop along the edge of Bay Road on the New Hampshire Seacoast where it crosses over Lubberland Creek, you can peer into Great Bay’s estuary waters and, if the timing is right, catch sight of a cluster of tiny glass (American) eels.

Unremarkable as it may seem, this moment is a glimpse into an unfolding drama, a critical turning point in one of nature’s great migration stories.

The American eels that find their way to Great Bay arrive after drifting for more than a year on the Gulf Stream north from the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, where they began life as larvae in a swirling mass of Sargassum seaweed. When they reach the bay, they head for fresh water, catching each high tide as they work their way farther inland, burying in the mud during the ebbing tide to keep from getting sucked back out to sea. Ultimately, the eels make their way to the rivers and lakes where they spend up to 30 years, continuing their metamorphosis into silver eels. And then, incredibly, the journey begins once more—a thousand miles back to the Sargasso Sea, where they return to spawn, and the cycle renews.

Too often, though, this remarkable journey comes to an abrupt end at the edge of a rusty culvert pipe. Undersized and poorly situated, the Bay Road culvert is a barrier—preventing eels and other migratory fish from reaching the freshwater habitat essential to their life cycle. This story, of thwarted migration, is all too common.

The Nature Conservancy is out to change this. We are launching an exciting initiative aimed at removing barriers, replacing problematic culverts, and reconnecting New Hampshire’s rivers to our bays and oceans. Our first project—a collaboration with the town of Newmarket to fix the tidal culvert on Bay Road—will be a model for many more to come. Once the project is complete, eels and other aquatic creatures, as well as small mammals, will be able to move safely beneath our roads to reach critical habitat.

This is just one example of how we are charting a course for healthy waters in the Granite State. By removing or improving barriers such as culverts and dams, we can reconnect our rivers and streams and provide for free movement of fish and other organisms. Working together, we can write a new story—for the glass eel and, ultimately, for the rest of the natural world.