Andrew Orkin took a break from an evening jogging, sat by Prospect Park Lake, and looked back and was surprised to see the tangled snakes moving. “And there’s a pretty big mountain, and it’s completely alive,” said Orkin, a music composer who lives near Brooklyn Park.
They turned out to be eels that escaped from one of two large plastic bags that broke open when a man dragged them into the coastline. After dumping the eels in the lake, the man walked away and explained to the bystanders, “I want to save my life.”
The illegal release at the end of last month was intriguing on social media, but the dumping of exotic animals in city parks is nothing new. In cities across the country, non-native birds, turtles, fish and lizards have settled in local ecosystems and are often confused.
New Yorkers release thousands of exotic animals each year, many of which quickly abandon their dying pets. However, others can survive, breed, and cause permanent harm.
“People like animals and sometimes think they’re doing good things by letting go of them,” said Jason Munshi South, an urban ecologist at Fordham University. “Most will die. Some will be a problem, and then you can’t go back.”
New York state and city officials say it’s too early to know how Prospect Park eels affect local species. However, based on photographs taken by bystanders, authorities have identified swamp eels native to Southeast Asia, as well as those found in at least eight states.
Once introduced (often after being purchased at the local live fish market), eels eat almost everything, including plants, insects, crustaceans, frogs, turtles and other fish. Katrina Toll, deputy director of the Wildlife Unit at the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, said they could prey on and compete with the park’s native species, even if they survived.
There are no plans to eradicate eels. They are nocturnal and most of the time sneak into lake, river and swamp sediments, so it may not be possible to find them and remove them from the lake.
“This kind of species needs a little attention. They are well hidden,” Toal said. “We don’t go there and try to trap any of them.”
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials investigating the case were unable to determine the number of eels released last month without witnessing the release. Bystanders explained that they saw more than 100 of them.
DEC officials say they will look for swamp eels in their next spring survey, but they don’t expect to survive the winter.
However, freshwater ecologist Nicholas Mandrak of the University of Toronto said, “Even if they don’t survive, they can have a negative impact in the short term.”
If some prospect park transplants survive for several years, climate variability could warm the city’s waters enough to entertain them, Mandrak said.
“They were found in Asia, so we shouldn’t immediately come to the conclusion that they can’t survive in New York City,” he said.
Exotic species previously appeared on Lake Hemlock and Canadice in western New York in 2019 and on Lake Queens Meadow in 2017. Elsewhere, biologists have found swamp eels in Asia in the waterways of Hawaii, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, and Florida. Pennsylvania.
New York City has a long history of introducing alien species into parks.
In 1890, Shakespeare enthusiasts released a herd of about 60 European starlings in Central Park, which now grows to hundreds of millions nationwide, defeating native birds, destroying crops, and sometimes jet engines. Makes you groan.
For decades, pet Mississippi turtles have been dumped in urban ponds, swarming local painted turtles and causing great inconvenience to fuel green algae.
At Harlemmere and Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York, a greedy, sharp-toothed northern snakehead was discovered, introduced through pet stores, live food markets, and aquarium enthusiasts.
And the descendants of the escaped or liberated Monk parakeet and the Italian wall lizard are scattered throughout the city’s autonomous region.
Eel is the latest episode. “This is a rare and eye-catching story, but what happens much more often is that people let go of one unwanted pet,” Toal said.