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  • Rights: The Royal Society, TVNZ 7 in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation
    Published 9 January 2012 Referencing Hub media

    Prized by Māori and valued as a delicacy in many cultures, the eel is a highly sought-after creature. Commercial eel exports are worth $6 million to New Zealand annually, with the price paid for eel being higher than snapper. However, it could be much more if supply met demand.

    As eel populations have been observed to be dropping for years, Whakatāne iwi Ngāti Awa are now combining traditional knowledge – mātauranga – and scientific study to count the eels and hopefully boost their numbers.

    New Zealand has two eel species – long-fin and short-fin. Mysterious, secretive creatures, the long-fin are legendary climbers, making their way to inland streams by wriggling up waterfalls and even dams. They breed only once, at the end of their long life, after a swim of thousands of kilometres to spawn in the ocean somewhere near Tonga, never to return.

    Commercial fishing, wetland loss and the construction of huge hydro dams have all contributed to the eel’s population and migration decline. Fewer eels are making the long journey to spawn, so fewer elvers are drifting back to New Zealand.

    For years, Ngāti Awa and other iwi have been helping eels to bypass river obstacles by guiding them into traps and transporting them up or downstream by hand. Now, as the obstacles get bigger, Ngāti Awa is combining mātauranga and science to create an innovative model for a sustainable eel industry, with knowledge gathered at hui attended by scientists and commercial eel exporters from around New Zealand. The goal is to have a sustainable export industry, customary fishing and a growing eel population existing alongside each other.

    Find out more

    Encourage your students to learn more about the impact of habitat loss by taking part in these activities:

    Read these article to find out more about human impact on marine environments and our rivers. In Give our native fish a hand! learn about the many different ways people can help their local stream environments.


    Eel populations in New Zealand’s rivers have been dropping for years and the loss of this important resource is the subject of an innovative new approach lead by Māori.

    Eels are a delicacy in many cultures, and commercial eel exports earns New Zealand exporters about $6 million dollars a year, but it could be much more. If supply could meet demand.

    Ever since Māori settled in Aotearoa, the eel – tuna in Māori - have meant not only food but prestige – the mana of laying on a feast for visitors.

    Eels are extremely important to us, they’re a taonga specie for all Maori. To lose the eel would be a travesty.

    Long fin eels only breed once leaving our swamps and rivers and heading over 1000 kilometres north to breed and die, as their tiny offspring then make the long journey home.

    The numbers of long fins out of this catchment, the migrating ones are declining. And then from the other end, we know that the number of elvers, which are coming up Matahina Dam which we catch and transfer, those numbers are declining as well. So there’s that correlation you know, if there’s not the big long fins spawning it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that A there’s going to be less elvers or baby ones coming back in the system.

    Juvenile eels known as elvers, grow up to 12 centimetres long and can migrate over a 100 kilometres inland during summer.
    In the past Māori built wooden wares to guide adult eels into traps, but today the obstacles are a great deal larger.

    What are we seeing here? A disaster to the adult eel fisheries.
    They get caught up in the penstock screens on their downward migration and the elvers were just climbing the whole station and ‘cause the sun comes out and they dry them up in 30 seconds.

    Bill has been helping eels bypass the obstacles for years.

    We catch them here and we have our tanks and we take them down below Matahina Dam and release from there.
    My grandmother lived on the river for 84 years in a raupo hut. We were brought up with the tuna.

    Ministry of Science and Innovation funding is bringing together that mātauranga – Māori customary knowledge, with a scientific study into eel population in order to design an eel management plan.

    We don’t know how many eels are in here, you know so when you make a fisheries plan, how do you know how much you can take out. So it’s a lot of the real basic data that my research is going to look at.
    Ideally with the MSI funding we’ll be able to create a model of where are the Iwi, or community based fisheries can incorporate what we’ve done, improve on it or just pick it up and run with it.

    BILL KERRISON (Yelling from the boat):
    Gees they’re big eels in here.
    This is the sustainability of a good lake.

    And the eel’s sustainability movement is growing. An Iwi lead national eel association will bring together Iwi and industry to coordinate on tackling the eel issue.

    There’s often been conflict between commercial and customary users. What we’re proposing with the national body is that everybody’s working with everybody. There is a huge opportunity for Iwi to be involved in the commercial side of this taonga. To me it’s a really great fit where we’re creating jobs, we’re creating economic opportunities…and we’re sustaining the taonga at the same time, so it’s a win-win for everybody.

    Ultimately the goal is to grow eel numbers for export as well as for kai, and the price of fish? With the cost of eel higher than snapper and declining habitat, the key is to find a way to balance the cultural, commercial and environmental pressure on the humble eel. To protect this taonga for future generations.

    That’s it my friends, she’s all over.

    This is part of the Innovation Stories series produced in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation, it featured on TVNZ 7 during the Spotlight on Science + Innovation month in August 2011.

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