NEW YORK – Andrew Orkin was taking a break from his evening jog to sit by Prospect Park Lake when he turned around and was surprised to see a tangle of writhing snakes.
“And a pretty big pile, completely alive,” said Orkin, a music composer who lives near the Brooklyn park.
turned out be eels that had escaped from one of the two large bags made of plastic that opened when a man dragged them to shore. After throwing the eels into the lake, the man walked away and explained to passersby that “I just want to save lives.”
The illegal release late last month became a curiosity on social media, but the dumping of exotic animals in urban parks is not new. In cities across the country, non-native birds, turtles, fish, and lizards have settled in and often altered local ecosystems.
New Yorkers release thousands of non-native animals each year, many of them abandoned pets that quickly die. But others can survive, reproduce, and end up causing lasting damage.
“People like animals and sometimes they think they are doing a good thing by letting them go,” said Jason Munshi-South, an urban ecologist at Fordham University. “Most will die. Some will become a problem and then there will be no turning back. “
New York City and state officials say it’s too early to know how Prospect Park’s eels might affect local species. But based on photos taken by passersby, officials identified them as native swamp eels to Southeast Asia, like those found in at least eight states.
Once introduced, often after being purchased from local live fish markets, officials say, the eels eat just about anything, including plants, insects, crustaceans, frogs, turtles and other fish. And they could harness or compete with the park’s native species for as long as they survive, said Katrina Toal, deputy director of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Wildlife Unit.
There are no plans to eradicate the eels. Since they are nocturnal and spend most of their time buried in the sediment of lakes, rivers and marshes, detecting them and removing them from the lake could be impossible.
“This type of species is a bit complicated. They’re well hidden, “Toal said.” We’re not going to go out and try to catch any of them. “
Without witnessing the release, officials with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is investigating the incident, were unable to specify the number of eels released last month. Passersby described seeing more than 100 of them.
DEC officials say they will search for marsh eels during the agency’s next survey in the spring, but they don’t expect them to survive the winter.
However, said University of Toronto freshwater ecologist Nicholas Mandrak, “Even if they don’t survive, they could have negative impacts in the short term.”
If some Prospect Park transplants survive for a few years, climate change could warm the city’s waters enough to allow them to thrive in the swamps, Mandrak said.
“We should not come to an immediate conclusion that because they are in Asia, they could not survive in New York City,” he said.
The exotic species has previously appeared in Western New York State Hemlock and Canadice Lakes in 2019 and in Queens Meadow Lake in 2017. Elsewhere, biologists have found Asian swamp eels in waterways in Hawaii, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
New York City has a long history of people introducing exotic species to its parks.
In 1890, Shakespeare enthusiasts unleashed a flock of about 60 European starlings in Central Park that grew to a current population of hundreds of millions across the country that compete with native birds, destroy crops, and occasionally make noise with birds. Reaction engines.
For decades, red-eared slider turtles as pets have been abandoned in the city’s ponds, creating a major nuisance that has displaced local painted turtles and fueled blooms of green algae.
The ravenous, sharp northern snakehead fish, featured through pet stores, live food markets, and aquarium hobbyists across the US, have been spotted in New York’s Harlem Meer and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
And the descendants of escaped or freed monk parakeets and Italian lizards are scattered throughout the city’s districts.
Eels are just the latest episode. “This is an unusual and eye-catching story,” Toal said, “but something that happens much more often is that people drop an unwanted pet.”