The onset of downstream migration of European eels is accompanied by a cessation of feeding and the start of sexual maturation which stresses the link between metabolism and sexual maturation, also suggesting an important role for exercise. Exercise has been tested with eels in swim tunnels and was found to stimulate the onset of sexual maturation. In this study, we have investigated the interplay between migration and maturation in the field during the downstream migration of female silver eels. Temporal changes in migratory status and sexual maturation among silver eels of the upstream Rhine River system over 3 months of the migration season (August, September and October) were determined in biometrical parameters, plasma 17ß-estradiol and calcium levels, oocyte histology and gonadal fat levels. Furthermore, the ecological relevant parameters age as determined by otolithometry and health aspects indicated by haematocrit, haemoglobin and swim-bladder parasite load were measured. Silver eels were estimated to be 14 years old. A strong temporal progression in migratory stage was shown over the months of downstream migration. Catches probably represented a mix of reproductive migrants and feeding migrants of which the ratio increased over time. Furthermore, this study confirmed our hypothesis linking the migratory stage to early maturation as indicated by enlargement of the eyes, oocyte growth and fat deposition in the oocytes, exactly the same changes as found induced by exercise but not ruling out environmental influences. Migrants show extensive fat uptake by the oocytes, probably stimulated by the swimming exercise. In addition, at least 83% of the silver eels in this spawning run may have suffered from negative effects of swim-bladder parasites on their swimming performance.
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