Anyone who has ever had the chore of giving their pet pooch a tomato-juice shampoo knows what skunks are.
And, thanks to Madonna’s showbusiness career, I have a pretty good idea what a skank is.
But a skink?
This was a new one for me, until Rhonda Gagnon – a water policy analyst for the Union of Ontario Indians -- nominated the Five-lined Skink as the April, 2010 poster child for threatened critters. Known as Kaadignebig –Legged Snake --the Skink is Ontario’s only native lizard.
Thanks to Rhonda’s research, the Anishinabek News had just launched a new Species-at-Risk feature on the Lands and Resources page. Issues related to the extinction of any species are important, since we are all related, and such threats to a skink’s health as pesticides are not likely any good for us two-leggeds either. If we do not do our best to ensure a healthy environment for skinks, human beings could well find ourselves an endangered species.
Well, after a few months of highlighting the plights of some creepy-crawly creatures, we started to tease Rhonda about the need to select some more appealing candidates, something warm and fuzzy. “There’s not much sympathy out there for snakes and the like,” we kidded. “A lot of people probably hope they DO disappear!”
So it was more than a little ironic that I found myself recently sitting beside our resident zoologist at a meeting called to raise alarms about the fading fortunes of the American Eel, about which there is absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy.
A powerpoint slide pointed out that the American Eel is panmictic and semelparous, but fortunately there were other slides that used words I could understand. We learned that the eel starts its life cycle in the Sargasso Sea in the Caribbean before heading north and making its way up the St. Lawrence and into the Great Lakes.
Eels were always important to First Nations peoples, who trapped them in weirs and speared them by the thousand. Retired teacher and avocational archaeologist William Allen of Burke’s Falls says that, in addition to providing Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee harvesters with a potent source of protein and Vitamin D, eels were prized for a variety of other reasons. Because they tightened considerably after drying, eelskins were ideal for braces and bandages, as well as bindings for sleds, moccasins, harpoons and bow grips. Eel flesh was used to waterproof clothing and boiled eel oil was a remedy for ear aches.
For First Peoples, the eel’s wide-spread availability and multiple uses conferred it with spiritual significance, and it was used in a variety of ceremonies and place names.
They were called kat by the MiKmaq, pimizi by the Algonquin, bimizi by the Ojibwe, and goda:noh by the Seneca. Three of the six Haudenosaunee nations – Cayuga, Onondoga and Tuscarora -- created eel clans, and there is a historic account of an Anishinaabe chief in the Kawartha Lakes region who called himself Eels.
The maritime Mi’Kmaq used eelskins as splints for arthritic wrists, and it was eels harvested by Donald Marshall Jr. that led to the landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision that entrenched First Nations rights to fish commercially and by treaty right, as opposed to by arbitrarily-imposed provincial seasons. A stone weir used by Mi’Kmaq to trap eels on the Mersey River in Nova Scotia is estimated to be 4,000 years old.
French settlers quickly acquired a taste for eel, and written records describing fishing practices date back to the 1600s. Today anguille is still a delicacy in Parisien restaurants, but at a high premium for diners. Long gone are the days when the species was so abundant that accounts describe grist mills being closed to enable operators to clear the mill wheels of dead eels.
Unfortunately, such run-of-the-river man-made structures are now seen as the main culprits in the gradual disappearance of the creatures, which have been known to grow to 12 feet in length. They are amazingly capable of squirming their way around many obstacles, flipping up onto shorelines and wriggling their way to the next available open water. But their traditional migratory route up the St. Lawrence is now dotted with massive hydro-electric dams, whose turbines have been the demise of countless numbers of them.
One solution is to equip high dams with eel ladders, that enable the fish – yes, they are fish – to bypass the menacing jaws of the turbines. There is a cost attached to this, of course, and the people who manage our natural resources will have to convince the people who sell hydro-electric power that this is a worthwhile investment.
I only remember seeing an eel once – over 50 years ago, I told others around the table. An uncle pulled one out of Stony Lake near Peterborough and cut his fishing line when he saw what was wrapped around it. He recoiled at the thought of even touching the slimy thing. (That, my colleagues informed me, qualifies as a piece of ATK – Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge!)
And it’s precisely that sense of the eel being regarded as more of a “nuisance” fish that makes its existence more endangered. Mammals not seen as essential to our diet, trainable enough to do our work, or cute enough to be on calendars are seen as disposable or dispensible to humankind. One species becomes extinct every 20 minutes, and some scientists say up to 50 per cent of existing species will be gone within the next century – unless we change our greedy, consumptive, non-sustaining ways.
Biodiversity serves a purpose – every living thing contributes to the well-being of the planet...even if it’s as slimy as the American Eel, or as homely as the Five-lined Skink.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.