Temperate-zone anguillid eels use both saline (marine or brackish) and fresh waters during their continental phase, but use of fresh waters is paradoxical because on average these fishes grow more rapidly in saline than in fresh waters. Based on data from anguillid eels whose habitat-residency histories had been determined by Sr:Ca otolithometry, superiority of growth rates in saline water is much greater in American eels Anguilla rostrata in north-eastern North America (mean saline:fresh growth rate ratio 2·07) than in European Anguilla anguilla, Japanese Anguilla japonica and shortfinned Anguilla australis eels (range of mean ratios 1·12–1·14). Data from A. rostrata in the Hudson Estuary, U.S.A., and Prince Edward Island, Canada, were used to test adaptive explanations of catadromous migrations. The hypothesis that lower mortality in fresh water offsets faster growth in saline water was not supported because loss (mortality + emigration ) rates did not vary between saline and fresh zones of the Hudson Estuary. Hypotheses that anguillid eels move to fresh water to escape from larger anguillid eels in saline water or to evaluate habitat quality were not supported by size and age distributions. Catadromy in temperate-zone anguillid eels increases the diversity of occupied habitats and therefore lowers fitness variance caused by environmental fluctuations. Catadromy in temperate-zone anguillid eels could be due to natural selection for maximum geometric mean fitness which is sensitive to fitness variance. Temperate-zone catadromy might also be maladaptive, at least in local areas, due to shifts over time in selective pressures or to inability of panmictic genetic systems to adapt to local conditions.