Stay Connected


American “Ninja” Eels Climb Dams to Live

American eels need to migrate from the Atlantic Ocean into rivers, but dams along the eastern coast stop them cold. One solution on the Roanoke River allows them to climb into traditional feeding grounds—kind of like a reality show obstacle course.

Young eels enter the Roanoke River in North Carolina after being carried by ocean currents. Their journey remains free of physical barriers until reaching the Roanoke Rapids Dam near the Virginia border. Owned by Dominion Resources and built in 1955, the 3,050-foot-long concrete dam is used for hydropower. Eels were not able to swim over the dam for decades.

But in 2010, as part of the dam’s re-licensing process, NOAA Fisheries collaborated with local partners to install two eel passage structures, called “eelways.” These structures are long, sloping ramps with a peg board of pipes to allow the eels to wriggle up and over the dam. A slow trickle of water encourages the eels as they make the climb.

Since then, more than two million eels have migrated upstream into 29 miles of historic habitat. Habitat access is essential to support the life cycle and help recover the population of American eels, currently at historically low levels. This presence of eels also helps promote a healthy ecosystem in the Roanoke River. The eelway on Roanoke River is giving American eels a chance to climb for survival.


Posted May 20, 2016

A staircase for eels parallels the human staircase at Roanoke Rapids Dam.
(Photo: Bob Graham, Dominion Power)
A close-up view of the Roanoke Rapids Dam eelway shows young American eels climbing PVC pipe.
(Photo: Bob Graham, Dominion Power)
A net of young American eels, called elvers.
(Photo: Bob Graham, Dominion Power)