SUNY Oneonta Biological Field Station researchers and Butternut Valley Alliance volunteers gathered in Morris to release thousands of small, squirming American eels into the waters of Butternut Creek on Wednesday.

Paul Lord, a researcher with the SUNY Oneonta Biological Field Station, said this was the second time eels had been stocked in New York since at least the 1970s. The eels, roughly 6 inches in length and about 1 to 2 years old, were released into Butternut Creek with a mission: to hopefully improve survival of the pearly mussel, a threatened aquatic species. Baby mussels use the eels as hosts, Lord said.

Sarah Coney, a SUNY Oneonta biology graduate student, and Lord drove the approximately 6,000 eels from Havre de Grace, Md., to Morris, periodically stopping to check oxygen levels in the eel buckets along the way. Once they arrived, volunteers carefully scooped eels out of their buckets, discarded the water, placed them in a bucket of Butternut Creek water and then passed the buckets to Butternut Valley Alliance volunteers at the banks of the creek.

Butternut Valley Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and conserving the environmental qualities, farming, economic development and cultural heritage in the Butternut Creek watershed, supported eel stocking efforts and provided additional watershed studies for the researchers' use, said Graham Stroh, Butternut Valley Alliance executive director.

American eels can grow up to 2 feet long as adults, Coney said. They spend between three to 40 or more years in fresh water and then migrate to the Sargasso Sea to release their eggs, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web page on the American eel.

Eels may also add a further layer of protection by gobbling up rusty crayfish, an invasive species that preys on baby mussels, Lord said. Pearly mussels provide ecosystem benefits like improved water quality by way of filtration; sediment mixing. which releases nutrients and creates ideal habitat for other aquatic creatures; and being a food source for fish, raccoons, snapping turtles and other animals.

Though the American eel's native habitat spans the entire East Coast, including all drainages in New York, the species was reduced below detection during the late 20th century, which was attributed largely to construction of dams. However, last July, two summer interns at the SUNY Oneonta Biological Field Station — Alexa Platt and Lauren Saggese — discovered a 12-inch American eel near the base of Cooperstown Dam at Otsego Lake.

Lord said the researchers will come back to the area next year to evaluate the eels' survival, using remote tracking devices and visually tracking the eels by kayaking the river.

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.