By Clinton & Charles Robertson from RAF Lakenheath, UK & San Marcos, TX, USA & UK (American eel (Anguilla rostrata) 2) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2017; Bay Journal (Chesapeake Bay, MD)

Proposed cuts to the EPA, considered the nation’s strongest tool for environmental conservation, are already being felt through the consolidation and closure of EPA labs, making environmental impact studies costlier and spreading the work among fewer employees. The weakening of environmental protections and investments can have wide-ranging systemic impacts, including but certainly not limited to the continued neglect of American Eels through bureaucratic funding delays.

Why do we care about eels, for goodness sake? Good question—Dan Ashe, a Fish and Wildlife director under the Obama administration who is now president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, warns that the weakening of the EPA comes at a terrible time, when wide scientific consensus agrees that our planet is at the brink of, and may already be experiencing, a sixth mass extinction.

The eels are, in this case, harbingers. Here is why we should pay attention.

Fifteen years ago, fisheries biologists advocated for the installation of “eelways” across two dams on the Potomac River. They are still awaiting government funding and approval. Dams No. 4 in Maryland and No. 5 in West Virginia have caused dramatic reductions in the American Eel densities in the tributaries upstream by blocking their migration. Although administrators of the federal Endangered Species Act have denied listing to the American Eel twice, they are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as endangered on its Red List. The American Eel is among 22,413 assessed species that are listed on the Red List, marking them as threatened with extinction. This threat, environmental agencies assert, can be ameliorated through tougher regulations and adaptive measures like eelways.

Although eels were once one of the most abundant species in East Coast rivers, their populations have plummeted in recent decades due to dams that block or hinder migrations into historic habitats, as well as overfishing, pollution, infestation by exotic parasites, and climate change.

The risk to the eels was first discovered by fisheries biologist Ed Enamait and his team through their studies in the 1980s and 1990s, which found that eel numbers were steadily declining. They voiced their concerns to their employers at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and have advocated for the installation of eelways on the two dams ever since.

Although eelways are planned for the two Potomac dams, their construction was waylaid by the discovery that both are historic structures built in the 1800s. This, and an old bridge that prevented easy access Dam No. 4, necessitated costly additional studies, complex designs, and engineering work. All told, the project was out of money before anything could be built.

Restoring American Eel populations in the Bay watershed is interesting to biologists because studies have shown that they play an important role in the ecosystem. The eels aid in the reproduction of the Eastern elliptio, the most abundant freshwater mussel in many Northeastern rivers. Each adult mussel can filter and remove pollutants from about 18 gallons of water a day as it feeds. The eels’ contribution to the mussels’ survival makes them important contributors to the water quality of the rivers impacted by the dams.

After years of delays, Enamait has begun fundraising for the project, raising $150,000 with the help of local nonprofit, state, and regional agencies. With the severity of threats to animals from pollution, climate change, habitat loss, poaching, and commercial harvest increasing, the necessity to advocate for animal protections is crucial. Among the most important ways to protect biodiversity is through the Endangered Species Act, which was passed in 1973.

The Center for Biological Diversity asserts that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is “one of the world’s most powerful and successful legal tools for protecting species at risk of extinction.” The Center works to counteract threats against the EPA by lobbyists and politicians. Such a threat came earlier this year, in February 2017, at an oversight hearing by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the need to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, testified at the hearing. “The biggest problem the Endangered Species Act faces is not a need for modernization,” Clark said. “It is a need for funding. Conflict surrounding the Act arises when government agencies lack the resources to fully implement the law. Starving the federal and state agencies that are committed to preventing species extinction and providing for the diversity of life across our country seriously undermines the goals of the law. The debate should not be about the law; rather it should be about our commitment to its purposes and goals.” As of the time between 2015 and of the hearing, “more than 130 bills or riders have been introduced that without exception would have weakened or undermined the Act and its purposes.”

Signed into law by President Nixon, the Endangered Species Act gives the federal government control over land use regulation of habitat for endangered species, with some elements left up to states. In its original form, the ESA specifies that decisions should be based solely on science and not on whether a species’ listing would have an economic effect. However, included in the current attempts to weaken the ESA’s effectiveness is H.R. 717, a proposal that would require wildlife officials to consider the cumulative economic impact of listing a species as endangered. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), claims that the protection of species results in job and potential revenue loses that cannot be ignored. Economic impacts include the restrictions imposed on private land owners for oil drilling, logging, and housing development.

A New York Times analysis shows that the current administration has indeed adopted a more lenient approach toward polluters than the previous two administrations. This is exemplified by the Trump administration’s proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s 2018 budget. These cuts would force the closure of 50 programs and eliminate 3,200 jobs. Unwilling to accept the steep proposed cuts, the spending bill passed by the House of Representatives instead cut the EPA budget by 6.5 percent, or $528 million.—Mi Lovejoy