02 October 2021

500 Eels Are Creepy Creatures

American Eels. From Getty Images.

Welcome to October (and my first #SpookySLC post). And yes eels are creepy creatures and I would hate to stumble upon 500 eels.

In July 1872 Albert P. Rockwood imported 500 American Eels and released them into the Jordan River.

Rockwood was Superintendant of the Zion Cooperative Fish Farm and Utah’s first Territorial Fish Superintendent. He was tasked by Brigham Young to determine why Utah’s native trout population was declining and to increase fish populations in waters along the Wasatch Front.

In addition to trying to propagate local trout species, his approach was to import exotic fish species. In addition to the eels, he introduced King Salmon, American Shad, lobsters, oysters, Asian Carp, and numerous other species. Many of these species (especially lobsters and oysters) failed immediately but we are now living with many of the impacts of his efforts such as the abundance of carp just about everywhere.

In 1871 Rockwood built a fish farm in Sugar House- probably near what is now the Forest Dale Golf Course. On the 20-acre farm he build a hatching house and 12 fish ponds fed by a large spring with water at a constant temperature of 55 degrees.

Rockwood’s trial-and-error methods combined with regular reports of his efforts and correspondence with the Smithsonian Institute means that his enterprise was the first scientific fish hatchery in the world.

One of his first attempts at fish farming was to import 500 baby American Eels from the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. Once the eels were about 4 in long he released them into a nearby tributary of the Jordan River.

The eels were seen sporadically over the next few years. One was caught and released in Sept 1874 in Utah Lake near the mouth of the Provo River, it measured 2 feet long.

Another was found dead in Jan 1875 along the shore of the Great Salt Lake near Centerville and was eaten by its finders who said “it was cooked and found to be well pickled in salt.”

The last sighting of a living eel was in the Jordan River just south of SLC in 1875.

Rockwood died in 1879 but others continued his fish farming experiments, thankfully without the eels.

Utah Stories Sugar House Prison Farm by Lynne Olson; SL Herald Republican 1871-07-30; Des News 1873-03-26; Utah County Times 1874-09-10; Des News 1875-08-25; Des News 1875-01-27; Des News 1876-02-03; SL Herald Republican 1879-11-27; The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated Jan 1874.

American Eel, image from USFWS.

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