The Connected Lives of Eels, Wolves, and Trees

Protecting the more-than-human guardians of water

Odette Auger

Detail of Great River 2 ©Tzintzun Aguilar-Izzo

This spring, river advocacy organization Talking Rivers hosted a community conversation called Who looks after Water? as part of their We’re all in this Together series. Participants explored the essential functions that more-than-human beings such as eels, trees, and wolves play in maintaining balance and vitality in our ecosystems.

Environmental technician and eel advocate Stephany Hildebrand spoke about the important but threatened role of American eels. With a vast range, these eels follow ocean currents, the earth’s magnetic field, and lunar cues to migrate between their spawning area in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda and freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes from Greenland to northeastern South America.

An integral species of the St. Lawrence river, American eels have played a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem balance by controlling other species and purifying waters. These days, when they arrive they find a river filled with human-made barriers and contamination. Once comprising 40% of the river’s fish biomass, American eels in the St. Lawrence river now face a population decline of almost 99%.

This decline not only impacts the ecosystem but also threatens cultural and medicinal practices tied to the eel. They have provided food and medicine to people (“particularly for arthritis,” says Hildebrand), and were an important part of beluga whales’ diet.

A very fatty fish, the eels absorb toxins from the waters. This amazing species can also breathe through their skin, travel on land, and survive massive temperature differences. To see “this fish that’s so hard to kill,” says Hildebrand, “at 1% of their original population in the St Lawrence River, [it’s] incredibly tragic and violent to see what’s happening to them.”

Still from the recording of Talking Rivers webinar "Who Looks After Water", showing two hosts and three speakers

Still from the recording of Talking Rivers webinar
“Who Looks After Water”

Trees’ gift to the oceans

The delicate balance of ecosystems and the impact of human activity is a strong theme in Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s work. She’s a botanist, medical biochemist and author several books on the role of trees in maintaining the planet’s health. In Who looks after Water? she focused on the contribution of deciduous trees.

Through their seasonal leaf shedding, she explains, they release compounds like fulvic and humic acids into water bodies. These acids support ocean life by enhancing water quality and providing essential nutrients. The fulvic acid from leaves goes out into the water and dissolves, becoming a chelating agent for iron.

To catch a fish, you must plant a tree.

“The land is rich in iron, the sea is poor in iron,” says Beresford-Kroeger. “The sea is always looking to the land for iron. … Iron triggers catalase, [which] triggers the nitrogenase enzymes to make protein,” she explains. “That is the feeding foundation … for every single thing in the ocean.” In this way, trees are guardians of not only terrestrial but also aquatic ecosystems, showcasing the intricate web of life.

Beresford-Kroeger calls for stewardship – “Forests belong to all of us and they belong to the fish. To catch a fish, you must plant a tree.”

Speaking for those who cannot

The Snake River is over 1,700 kilometres long, winding through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington – the largest tributary of the Columbia River.

Julian Matthews (Nez Perce) works with Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. He says human interference and development along Snake River waterways has resulted in toxic algae blooms and water temperature fluctuations. Tribal members and groups are working together to reintroduce wolves, hold salmon ceremonies, and end Idaho’s wolf culls.

“Whoever you are, you just have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing because that’s all they understand.”
—Julian Matthews (Nez Perce)

The Snake River, as a part of the natural world, has rights, says Matthews. “The river has the right to live and flourish and be protected.” This includes the river’s right to flow freely without man-made impediments like the four dams on the Snake River system. “Salmon are the lifeblood, so we can’t have it being destroyed or decimated or made extinct,” Matthews explains. “We’re a part of this whole. I tell people, we don’t own the woods, we don’t own the river, we don’t own the land – we’re a part of it.”

In June 2020, the Nez Perce General Council passed a resolution recognizing the rights of the Snake River. Hildebrand similarly calls for recognizing rights of more-than-human beings, and the strategic impact that could afford. “If you were to give rights to eels, it would impact the rights of all these rivers as well because of how many rivers they use.”

“We have to speak for those who cannot – wolves, salmon – we have to speak on their behalf to protect them,” from the timber industry, dams, fish farms, and climate change, says Matthews. He emphasizes the importance of education, collaboration, and persistence in advocating for environmental issues, stating, “Whoever you are, you just have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing because that’s all they understand.”

Hildebrand agrees with the need for collaboration, adding we need “Greater transparency in government, greater transparency in industry, shared information, shared research,” as essential steps towards securing rights for rivers, eels, and other species.

Beresford-Kroeger advocates for recognizing the sacredness of nature, and says it’s crucial for environmental stewardship to understand and respect that. “The natural world is our teacher,” she says. “It will speak to you in a voice that you will understand.”

The conversation becomes a rallying call – for humans to reciprocate what more-than-human guardians have always done.

Odette Auger (Sagamok Anishnawbek) is an award winning independent journalist and storyteller, living on Klahoose territory in the Salish Sea. Follow her work at

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

Can we ask for a little of your time, and some money?

We can’t do this without you. Support independent media and donate a little or a lot – every bit makes a difference. And when you give those precious extra dollars, we treat them as the honour it is and use them carefully to pay for more stories, more distribution of information, and bonus copies to colleges and libraries. Donate $50 or more, and we will publicly thank you in our magazine. And we always thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Related Stories