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Book Review: Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek

Review by Sid Perkins

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What many people in the West view as vile, slimy creatures are, according to Prosek, the world’s most mysterious fish. (Yes, despite often being mistaken for snakes, eels are fish.) They can live for a century, they spend most of their lives in fresh water but must return to sea to spawn, and they can travel up to a quarter of the globe to do that spawning.

In a captivating account, Prosek takes readers though the scientific, cultural and culinary worlds of eels. In the South Pacific, eels figure prominently in creation myths, even being worshipped by some family clans on one small island. While historians still debate whether the Pilgrims ate turkey at their first Thanksgiving, one account from the era indicates that Native Americans taught starving colonists to fish for eels.

Though now largely shunned in the West, the sweet buttery flesh of the eel is highly prized in Asia. Worldwide, freshwater eels bring in billions of dollars and account for about one-eighth of global aquaculture production.

In a style more travelog than tome, Prosek also relates stories of people whose lives are intimately entwined with the slithery fish: the Maori of New Zealand who revere eels as guardians, an eccentric New Yorker who traps eels using traditional methods and scientists who troll the seas in search of unknown spawning grounds.

Prosek gives readers a new appreciation for eels, whose populations are dropping precipitously. Besides overfishing, eels face habitat degradation and climate change, but the largest threat may be immense dams that block eels headed upstream to mature or seaward to breed.

Harper, 2010, 304 p., $25.99.

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