Oneida Lake Education Initiative

"Your gateway to understanding Oneida Lake"

American Eel

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  • In NY, individuals may reach a length of 40 inches, can be as heavy as 7 pounds, and may be more than 13 years old
  • Juveniles eat mostly insects, adults eat mostly fish and crustaceans
  • Eel larvae hatch in the Sargasso Sea and migrate to inland lakes


The American eel's long, slender, snakelike body makes it hard to confuse with other fish. Additionally, the American eel has jaws, single gill slits, and no pelvic fins, all of which are characteristics that distinguish it from other “eel-like” fish. A juvenile eel’s back is grayish green with the color fading to white on the belly. As the eel grows, it will become yellow brown with a yellow belly, and before beginning its spawning migration it will become bronze with a silver belly. While often overlooked, American eels have small, embedded scales, and these give the eel a slippery feeling. American eels’ fins are connected to the tail, so they appear to have one continuous fin around the end of their bodies.


American eels are migratory fish, and are found from the ocean to the headwaters of many streams. They spend most of their time buried in gravel and mud, or hiding under rocks, but they are effective carnivores that feed heavily during the night. Small eels eat mostly insects, including mayflies and caddisflies, while larger adults eat small fish and crustaceans. Due to their snakelike way of moving, eels are able to bypass most barriers (including some dams) and have even been seen crossing lawns during heavy rains.


Eels are the only fish in New York that are catadromous, meaning they live in freshwater as adults but swim to the ocean to spawn. It is not known exactly where and how they spawn, but most researchers believe that spawning occurs north of Bermuda, in the Sargasso Sea. During the first stage of life, eels exist as ribbon-like, transparent larvae that drift with the current and take about one year to reach New York. When they become 64mm (2.5 inches) long, larval eels change into the recognizable “eel shape”, but remain transparent. They are now called “glass eels.” As glass eels near coastal rivers, they become colored and are called "elvers." The 75mm (3 inch) long female elvers move far upstream, while the male elvers remain near the ocean. Eels usually spend ten years in freshwater before returning to the sea to spawn. Spawning adults and eggs have never been found, and it is assumed the adults die after spawning.


Eels are important commercial fish in New York State. Most are exported to Europe and Japan, where they are smoked, jellied, or cooked in olive oil and vinegar. Unfortunately, many of the prime NY fishing areas for eels have been closed due to high PCB levels. Eels were abundant in Oneida Lake 100 years ago, but have declined and are now rarely seen.



To learn more about American Eel ...

American Eel Factsheet (pdf - 92kb)

Oneida Lake Education Initiative Fish Homepage