Books & Articles

Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish

Simon & Schuster (2009)

A New York Times Book Review
Editor's Choice
(Read more)

They are the only fish that spawn in the middle of the ocean but spend their adult lives in freshwater. They can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and even cross over land. They are revered as guardians and monster-seducers by New Zealand's Maori, and have inspired myths concerning breadfruit, banana, and coconut among the Pacific Island peoples. Often viewed with disgust in the West, they are a multibillion dollar business in the Asian food market—the Japanese est them to beat summer fatigue. And they are often mistaken for snakes. They are eels—one of the world's most amazing and least understood fish (Yes, fish.)

James Prosek offers a fascinating tour through the life history and cultural associations of the freshwater eel, exploring its biology in streams and epic migrations in the ocean, its myth and lore, its mystery and beauty. Prosek travels the globe to tell the story of the eel—from New York to New Zealand; from Europe to the small island of Pohnpei Micronesia, where freshwater eels are worshipped by members of the eel clan. Along the way he introduces individuals whose lives are most connected with the eels' story—including fishermen, conservationists, and scientists seeking to uncover the eels' elusive home in the Sargasso Sea and their spawning places in other oceans of the world. Though eels have been here for hundreds of millions of years, populations of freshwater eels are rapidly declining, largely due to dams, overfishing, pollution, and perhaps even global climate change.

Illustrated with etchings by the author, Eels is a mesmerizing biography and history of this intriguing and mysterious creature. It is also a telling look at humanity, the will to persist, and the ever-changing relationship between man and the natural world.

Read an excerpt:




James Prosek's first book, "Trout: An Illustrated History," full of Prosek's gorgeous watercolors, came out when he was a mere wunderkind of 19. He has since written six books on fishing and a little unforgettable book titled "The Day My Mother Left." Prosek has a talent for observation, for allowing his mind to wander across pages without leaving us behind (think of Peter Pan teaching Wendy and her siblings how to fly). He finds the beauty in things, the hook, the reason why they get to us, why they lodge in our subconscious. Did you know that Sigmund Freud's first book as a young graduate student was on the testes of eels? Or that they begin life in the ocean (a very specific ocean, the Sargasso Sea) and migrate to fresh water, only to return nearing death to the place where they were born? Did you know that the Maori of New Zealand venerate the eel and believe that certain eels act as guardians, appearing to people in times of danger? It's fun to travel armchair style alongside Prosek — to New Zealand, to the Sargasso Sea, and to an eel weir in the Catskills maintained by a wise old river man. Yes, it's a book about eels — but it's the stuff of dreams, and it's all true.
    — Los Angeles Times, Susan Salter Reynolds

EELS: you either love 'em or hate 'em. Well, perhaps few people have such strong feelings about eels, but this book should change that. Prosek's account of 11 years spent in pursuit of "the world's most mysterious fish" is both enthralling and appalling. What started as an investigation into where eels spawn evolved into something part-travelogue, part-anthropological study, part campaign to save the eel. The eel's story is remarkable, and so are Prosek's tales of eel people. We meet Ray, who rebuilds a giant stone eel trap in the Catskill Mountains near New York, only to see his eels flushed away by flood waters. We hang out with Stella, a Maori student of New Zealand's eels, who lures decades-old giants out of the river with dog food. Then there are the eel people of the Pacific island of Pohnpei, who claim an eel as their ancestor. If you ever visit, don't ask to eat eel.
    — New Scientist

“A comprehensive and appreciative study of one of the world’s most mysterious creatures. In 11 years of research Prosek has collected anguilline myths, lore and recipes from all over the world, with particular emphasis on eel-worshipping in New Zealand and Micronesia. The footnotes are full of strange facts… striking… poignant.”
    — The Economist

The tale of Ray Turner, a man who still fishes for eels the traditional way with a hand-built weir, is at the heart of the book, tying the mythology, the mystery, and the commerce of eels together into his story.
    — Booklist

National Geographic Magazine, September 2010
(or download in PDF format)

Vimeo, June 2010
A multimedia presentation about the last man on the East Coast who still fishes for eels with an ancient stone weir, made in collaboration with Orion contributor and artist/author James Prosek.

Eels can grow as big as pythons and routinely do in the western Pacific, and they are slimy and can inflict a wicked bite. Their association with the snake often stirs unease, but not in the author, who has fallen under the eel’s spell—not unlike that experienced in the cultures and cosmologies of the Maori of New Zealand, the Chinese and Japanese and the people on the Pacific island of Pohnpei, Micronesia. Though Prosek doesn’t neglect the natural history of the eel, so little is known about its lifeways that he concentrates more on the symbolic powers of the giant freshwater eel. These accounts offer glimpses into the faith and traditions of frequently mysterious cultures, yet some Maoris and Pohnpeians recognized in the author a sympathetic soul, unlike those of the colonizing Europeans who nearly eradicated the Maori, as well as their eel as a icon. Prosek understands that in retelling these stories he offers only a glimmering of the eels’ customary complexity and ambiguity, but he does well in interweaving the mythological and the personal. The author is also a diligent natural historian, keen to the greater landscape. He vividly evokes a bleached-white coral path reflecting the moonlight on Pohnpei, and an eel catcher on the Delaware River, “with his long beard, the hills of the Catskills and the rusty yellow foliage of the beech trees behind him...looked like an old Russian bush guide making his way up the Amur.” Prosek provides plenty of fun facts, as well—the Borgias may have used eel- blood poison on their enemies, and “the astronomer Montanari believed that an eel’s liver facilitated delivery in childbirth.” A warm, enrapturing paean to the totemic potency of eels.
    — KIRKUS REVIEWS July 1, 2010

“It is a great relief on this deceptively familiar earth to be reminded that the natural world goes on being replete with mysteries. Few are so intertwined with our terrestrial and marine preconceptions as the great family of eels. James Prosek explores their astonishing lives in service to our proper awe of nature. This is a delightful work with the urgency of a good detective story.”
    — Thomas McGuane

“James Prosek’s Eels is a wonderful account of far-flung travels in pursuit of the secrets of the earth’s most mysterious fish and also of the eel’s prominence in the Creation myths and present-day fisheries of traditional peoples, New Zealand’s Maori, in particular; his experiences in that culture are fascinating and beautifully rendered. Altogether, a very fine book.”
    — Peter Matthiessen

“I loved it! A beautiful adventure story of one of the most wide-spread and least-known but ecologically important fish. Prosek combines their amazing biology with adventure and politics. We now have to wonder if these, once some of the most common of fish, are going the way of the cod, the passenger pigeon and the bison.”
    — Bernd Heinrich, author of Summer World

"[A] riveting synthesis of cultural, geographical, and botanical sleuthing. . .”
    — Publisher's Weekly

If you consider the eel only when you're ordering in a sushi joint, you might not think the creature warrants an entire book. James Prosek's entertaining "Eels," devoted to the slimy, snake-like freshwater fish that spawns in the ocean, proves otherwise. It's less an exhaustive scientific examination than part-travelogue, part-cultural examination and part-scientific exploration. Prosek's writing is fluid and relaxed, exploring how different kind of humans approach eels rather than overwhelming us with data or recipes. He heads to New Zealand and snorkels with the fish, samples smoked eel and learns how respectfully the Maori view eels. In Japan, he visits eel farms and tours the fish markets where eels are sold. On the volcanic Micronesian island of Pohnpei, he hears from a culture that respects the eel too much to consume it. A diplomat from a nearby island whispers to him that they eat eels there, speaking quietly to avoid offending locals; a local laughs at the author when he asks if she would ever eat eel. Prosek notes that the eel serves as "a metaphor for the resilience of life itself." The eel also becomes an oddly useful blank slate upon which Prosek projects discussions of cultural traditions, the limits of scientific research, commercial needs and conservation efforts. The subjects of the book might not be the cuddliest creatures, but they inspire a great deal of interest, respect and profit the world over.
    — Mark Berman, Washington Post


Purchase the Book

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Bird, Butterfly, Eel by James ProsekEels
An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

Tsukiji-Shokan Publishing

Eels book released in Japan, summer 2016

Read the Review in Asahi Newspaper





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