A project to clean up Watercress Creek that runs through the Fonterra factory at Takaka has won a national river award, but its staff are upset at the loss of their "adopted" long-term resident eels.
Last month a National Rivers Award was given to Tasman District Council environmental educator Claire Webster for the significant improvement of the waterway and habitat.
The combined efforts of Keep Golden Bay Beautiful, Fonterra and local schools meant the quality of the water in the creek and its habitat has dramatically improved over the last few years.
Ms Webster, who co-ordinated the project, gave strong credit to Fonterra for the clean up of the waterway.
"Fonterra had already fenced it before we arrived. They'd just taken on the job of cleaning it up, stopping stock access and planting. It was quite a big deal," she said
Over the past 10 years Takaka Fonterra staff had "adopted" the long-finned eels, particularly a female eel dubbed "Harry" who is thought to be as old as 60.
Fonterra environmental team leader manager Andrew Lamason said the long-finned eels were on the New Zealand threatened species list and had the same status as the great spotted kiwi.
An eeler had recently passed through Golden Bay removing most of the eels, and had probably harvested the eels for "cat food".
"These eels only get one chance to breed, so taking out the biggest females before they breed just doesn't make sense. He's done nothing illegal, but to have him come and strip them out ... well we're starting again," he said.
Mr Lamason said Fonterra put a lot of effort into "operating without impacting the environment in a negative way" so that eels and other native species could thrive. Harvesting them for commercial gain "just doesn't make sense."
Fonterra had been working on restoring kahikatea, pukatea, nikau and other native trees to the sides of the creek, he said.
"Down stream it's happening, the trees have re-established and shaded over the stream. That's what we'll be heading to next here," Mr Lamason said.
A variety of other native species such as freshwater crayfish and inanga inhabiting the water, indicated the creek was in a healthy state.
"Not only is the quality of aquatic species improving but several native bird species are now using the area so we're getting a lot of benefit," he said.
Fonterra environmental operator Simon Page said "everybody" had taken a shine to feeding the eels.
Attitudes to environmental care were changing within the culture of Fonterra farming, he said.
"We've definitely gone ahead in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years."
Mr Page said he harvested watercress from the creek for hangi on a regular basis and "no-one had come to any grief"'.
- The Nelson Mail