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Hunt for elusive eel breeding ground featured on CBS

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Chris Flook, a conservationist with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, examines sargassum seaweed - the floating sealife habitat of the Sargasso Sea (File photograph)

Bermuda was in the spotlight over the weekend in a US TV segment that featured an island scientist and a centuries-old sea mystery.

The island’s position on the edge of the Sargasso Sea brought a CBS crew to the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to report on the migration habits of freshwater eels.

A secret eel nursery inside the Sargasso Sea has never been found – and scientists remain stumped by the breeding of both American and European eels.

The team came last September for a trip out to sea with conservationist Chris Flook, who has researched the eels.

The six-minute feature aired as part of CBS’s Sunday Morning news programme.

Mr Flook, the boat and dock supervisor at BIOS in Ferry Reach, St George’s, said: “It’s just really interesting as a story.

“The eel hatches in salt water, swims all the way to North America or Europe and swims all the way against the water up a freshwater river, where it lives most of its life.

“The eels then stop feeding, swim all the way back to the Sargasso Sea, find a mate, spawn, and then die.

“It’s just one of those mysteries. We’ll never be able to know everything, but it would be cool to crack it.”

Sargassum weed adrift on the Sargasso Sea (File photograph)

BIOS has no specific research programme designed to track down the nursery of the eels, which sometimes show up in the research station’s plankton nets.

But the research centre works with researchers who come to Bermuda to study the eels and attempt to find their breeding grounds.

Mr Flook said: “We’re the closest landmass to where the spawning happens, which makes us part of the uniqueness of the Sargasso Sea as this mystical special place.”

He had sometimes gone trawling for the larvae of the eels, which were once abundant in Bermuda’s wetlands.

Mr Flook said: “There’s a history of them being present in places like Spittal Pond and Mills Creek. I haven’t seen them in years.

“There’s been so much habitat change and environmental change.”

The eels are a lucrative global fishery and Mr Flook said a better understanding of how they spawned would help in conservation management.

The European eel, which travels to the Sargasso Sea to breed (File photograph)

He added that technological advances were “zooming ahead” and the secret might eventually be cracked.

But Mr Flook said he was prepared to hazard a guess at where the eel breeding grounds might be.

He added: “I think the spawning grounds are a little to the east of us.

“That’s where a lot of people seem to be interested in both the European eel and the American eel.”

He said, however, that not everyone wanted to see the mystery solved.

“Some people want it to be cracked and some don’t. It would be cool to know what makes these eels do what they do.

“But at the same time, it’s nice to have these mysteries. There’s a real mystique to it all.”

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Published January 19, 2022 at 7:49 am (Updated January 19, 2022 at 7:49 am)

Hunt for elusive eel breeding ground featured on CBS

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