Lifeline for our Longfin Eels

Guest Bloggers: Mike Joy, a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science at Massey University & Masters student Amber McEwan

Of all our threatened endemic iconic species there is only one that almost all New Zealanders have come in contact with.  Our other threatened species are on offshore islands or in very hard to access places, seen only by a select few.  But this one, can, or at least could until very recently be found literally in many people’s back yards or within walking distance, it was accessible to almost everyone. This beautiful and enigmatic natural treasure is under immediate threat from a very small group of people with the active collusion of a government department. 

Our longfin eel is on the verge of extinction, driven to this brink by the multitude of impacts on our freshwaters from deforestation, pollution from farming, urban and industrial wastewater and damming of rivers.  But the final (and totally avoidable) pressure that is pushing them over the edge is commercial fishing.  Bizarrely, this threatened endemic species is being fished to extinction under the “management” of our Ministry of Fisheries.  This economically insignificant industry is putting at risk the birthright of all New Zealanders, supplying eels to a market that exists solely because other countries have fished their own native eels to near extinction.

All the signs are very bad for longfin eels, and recent research makes for particulary grim reading:

  • The number of juveniles arriving at our streams from where they spawn in the ocean has dropped by 75%
  •  The average size captured has dropped every year since commercial fishing started
  • Regularly fished rivers in the South Island now have male eels outnumbering females by 100 to 1 because the females are larger so are taken first.

Not a single commercial quota has ever been met.  Due to eels’ incredibly long lives and the fact that they breed only once at the end of them, we are essentially “fishing in a bucket” – decimating a population that is not replenishing itself.

Unlike all other threatened species, there is an easy solution here – just stop commercial eel fishing.  No current commercial fisheries model can manage an already heavily decimated species that breeds only once at the end of a long life.  Eels should be harvested on a recreational basis only – like Trout.  The trout fishery was designated recreational only in order to prevent over-harvesting and as such, is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world.

In recent years the Ministry of Fisheries has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on meetings, research & staff time  on this problematic fishery – close to the same amount that eel export revenue generates for less than 100 people employed in the eel fishery, most of them on a part time basis.  It’s time for the Ministry to take action and admit what we are all waking up to these days – that some things just don’t last forever.

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11 Comments

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  1. March 3, 2009 1:20 pm
    TrevorS says

    I wonder if the eel you get in the sushi shops is NZ eel? I will have to stop buying it till I can find out.

  2. March 3, 2009 6:11 pm
    Marieke says

    You’re an articulate, energetic advocate Mike, and the eels are lucky to have you.

    What do you think is required to get the Ministry of Fisheries to take action? Do you know what the problem is in delaying the action? Is there something we can do to help?

  3. March 3, 2009 9:21 pm
    Pete S. says

    I remember visiting an eel processing plant on a school trip back in the late sixties. I was amazed at seeing huge vats full of very large living eels before they were going to be processed for export.
    It now saddens me that we have been selling off these wounder full creatures for decades. Their habitat should be restored and these amazing native fish should be preserved for all future generation to be able to wonder at.

  4. March 5, 2009 3:27 pm
    Peter H says

    Mike I don’t know that New Zealanders are willingly allowing eels to be fished to extinction and I am sure the majority would be horrified if they knew. Sadly economics is more sexy and news worthy than long squirmy wet things.

    The only avenue we really have to save this species is through people power and education.

    Somehow those 100 people who get a living from fishing for eel need to be found alternative work. If the eels were to be managed like trout as you suggest then at least some could be employed as rangers to protect the eel from poachers. Introduce rules that make it an exclusive game fish and hard to catch would give recreational fishers a challenge and generate income for the government through licensing fees.

    I look forward to hearing your talk on 19 March at 7:30 pm Lecture Room 3, Victoria University Law Faculty, old Government Building Wellington

  5. March 10, 2009 2:54 pm
    slumcatmillionaire says

    Poor old eels. I used to have an eel that lived in the creek at my house – you could feed it bits of meat on the end of a stick. It was huuuuuge. I hope it is still there, I moved house so I don’t know. I would hate to think that someone ate him (her?)

  6. March 17, 2009 1:06 pm
    greengal says

    Is there any way that people can do anything about this to change the rules or something? I would like to help but dont know where to start.

  7. September 17, 2010 2:41 pm
    Bjorn Leigh says

    I am a student studying Environmental Management at SIT in Invercargill. I had no idea of the threat the Longfinned Eel is under. I have chosen to study this animal as the subject of my next assignment and would not have known this fish was in trouble otherwise. As a child a favourite weekend activity was to go eeling with my mates in the Opuanuku stream and its tributaries in west Auckland. I recall on one occasion catching a longfin eel about 1.8m in length and probably over 100mm in diameter. We killed this eel and took it as a trophy. Had I known then that this amazing creature was probably about 100 years old and close to embarking upon its breeding migration, I would have thought twice about killing it. We caught many other longfinned eels of lesser but still considerable size and numerous shortfin eels and we did eat most of our catch.
    I think it is true that many New Zealanders would be shocked to know the state that the longfin eel population is in and would be passionate to protect this interseting endemic creature.
    What can I do?

  8. November 26, 2010 12:01 pm
    Andrea says

    can these eels be bred in captivity and released at a cerain time?
    If so how would one go about finding out how to do this?
    Does eel farming exist at a replenishable rate in NZ?
    Where can I go to visit an eel farm?
    I live in a place where there is a supply of long finned eels and have been reading about them for a while.
    Is there an iwi or hapu with kaitiaki that monitor the catch rate or collect data on catches of long finned eel?
    How can one find out who hold quota to do so?
    My class are interested in studying the long finned eel as the eel is the kaitiaki of the people who live in our area.
    Please may i have as much information as possible about long finned eels.
    Kia Ora mo to koutou mahi pai rawa atu ki te tiaki, awhina, aroha ki nga tuna.

  9. November 26, 2010 12:06 pm
    Andrea says

    can these eels be bred in captivity and released at a certain time?
    If so how would one go about finding out how to do this?
    Does eel farming exist at a replenishable rate in NZ?
    Where can I go to visit an eel farm?
    I live in a place where there is a supply of long finned eels and have been reading about them for a while.
    Is there an iwi or hapu with kaitiaki that monitor the catch rate or collect data on catches of long finned eel?
    How can one find out who hold quota to do so?
    My class are interested in studying the long finned eel as the eel is the kaitiaki of the people who live in our area.
    Please may i have as much information as possible about long finned eels.
    Are there any other inherent danger to the survival of long finned eels apart from farming, erosion, hunting and bush felling? What are the antural preditors of the eel?
    Kia Ora mo to koutou mahi pai rawa atu ki te tiaki, awhina, aroha ki nga tuna.

  10. November 26, 2010 5:27 pm
    Mike Joy says

    Andrea, they can be farmed only if taken from wild and fattened they cannot be bred. The natural breeding takes place in the Pacific Ocean many kilometers deep, so trying to match these conditions is near enough to impossible. Some scientist at tghe Maharangi Technical Institute have managed to strip eggs and fertilise them but the the larvae soon die probably because the deep ocean conditions cannot be matched.
    Sorry i dont know of Iwi or hapu monitoring eels, you could try Caleb Royal at the Wananga-o-Raukawa in Otaki. The only natural predators of mature eels i know of are shags, but not the big eels. Juvenile eels would be eaten by other fish, and birds. The list of threats to eels you have is pretty much it.
    Mike

  11. May 18, 2012 12:10 am
    Noel Jhinku says

    Hi Mike,

    Interesting article, great work you guys are doing. Can you let me know the source of the recent research you mention above?

    Noel

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