Eels are making a mint
Export earnings expected to top $1bnLES WATKINS
A new partnership between two teams of academics promises to ensure that New Zealand dominates the lucrative worldwide trade in eels. Export earnings are expected to top $1 billion a year.
Research successes with eels at Warkworth's Mahurangi Technical Institute (MTI) are set to guarantee an abundance of this sought-after delicacy.
Eels are fast becoming an endangered species in the wild and increasing international demand for them is sending prices soaring. Major markets include China and Japan and they also have growing popularity in countries such as Indonesia, which has a population nudging 240 million.
Earlier attempts to hatch eggs and nurture them into saleable adults have failed and so wild-caught juveniles, glass eels, are sold for farming.
"But this wild resource is shrinking fast because of factors such as pollution and sprays and Europe has lost 95 per cent of its eels in the past 20 years," says MTI director Dr Paul Decker. "I foresee the time when none will come from there. That's why the price of the glass eels keeps climbing. Most are currently caught in Europe and the average price in 2003 was € 400 a kilogram. By 2005 it was € 920 and last year it reached € 3000."
Chinese entrepreneurs recognised the vast potential and offered MTI a "gigantic sum" to share its research. But they also insisted that the entire operation should go to China. So would the eventual income.
"We were desperately keen to keep the benefits for New Zealand but it seemed that we'd have to accept their offer otherwise our research would judder to a halt," says Decker.
"We're entirely privately funded and couldn't afford to continue until the benefits began to flow. Government research agencies told us our work merits support but that they can't afford to fund it."
Now the Manukau Institute of Technology has come to the rescue with funding, and access to more funds, after signing a partnership agreement with MTI.
The Warkworth research involves New Zealand short-finned eels as well as the long-finned species, which are the world's biggest freshwater eels, growing up to 1.6 metres and weighing 40kg. Females spawn only once in their lifetime, at any age between 15 years and about 100, and then die. Decker is confident this death pattern can be broken for laboratory-protected females, enabling them to have more spawnings.
"Each mother has at least two million offspring at a time," he says. "Sometimes the total can be as high as five million. Only a tiny percentage of eggs survive in the wild but we can get a 98 per cent hatching rate."
His team will grow the glass eels to a size big enough for farming. That is expected to need another two or three years of research.
"We'd then be operating rather like a global chicken farm," says Decker. That's when the bonanza will come for New Zealand. "But," he adds, "the knowledge will remain a tightly guarded intellectual property."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Do you have an idea for a story? Email us or give us a call on 09 925 9700.