Recently, it was widely reported that “dozens of fish” died in Four Mile Run near Shirlington due to a water main leak. One woman who heard the news told me that she never knew that there were fish in Four Mile Run. While it shouldn’t take an incident like this to bring Arlington’s wildlife to the attention of its human residents, at least there is the silver lining of helping to educate people about Arlington’s natural resources.
This reminded me of the summer of 2001 when the runoff from a herbicide application by the Washington Golf and Country Club killed hundreds of American eels in Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch. The golf course agreed to change its practices and paid $145,000 to reimburse the federal government. I told that story at a recent meeting and was surprised that many long-time Arlingtonians had the same reaction: are there eels in those streams? Who knew?
Like many transient residents of Arlington, the American eel, Anguilla rostrata, spends only a portion of its life in our fair county. The eels begin their lives as eggs floating in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After hatching, they swim toward North America where they enter many freshwater streams, including Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch. Here they mature before beginning their journey back, passing through the Chesapeake Bay on their way to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die. American eels are an important component of the Bay, both ecologically and economically.
The American eels are the only catadromous fish in North America. They undergo remarkable metamorphoses as they move from their birth in salt water, their maturation in fresh water, and their return to salt water to spawn. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “some scientists consider the highly adaptive American eel to have the broadest diversity of habitats of any fish species in the world.”
Arlington officials have confirmed that the eels have returned to Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch. Let’s try to keep it that way.
Mike Nardolilli serves as President of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, President of the Arlington Outdoor Lab, and as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.