Our true taniwha

Last updated 09:02 08/06/2012

Everybody's got an eel story in New Zealand. When we were kids we used to go eeling, digging what Dad called a "Maori eel trap" - a trench next to a lakeside or stream, dug long and thin enough for an eel to swim up with some meat in some pantihose staked to the top end. The idea was, the eel would swim up into the trench after smelling the meat and then, not being able to swim in reverse, remain stuck there.

However, the more I've learnt about our native eels, especially their amazing life cycle, the less inclined I've been to eat them or hunt them ever again. What I didn't know then is that our native longfin eels - the real big ones with a long dorsal fin (about two-thirds the length of their body), is that they're found only here in New Zealand, and that they can live for 100 years.

Longfin eel

That in itself is pretty amazing stuff, but then I learned that longfin eels (which have been populating New Zealand's rivers, streams and lakes for 23 million years) breed only ONCE in their lives. This breeding event is in itself pretty spectacular, since they swim to a mysterious place - thought to be off the coast of Tonga somewhere - breed and then die. That's one helluva holiday romance! If that in itself doesn't impress you, than think of what happens next. The tiny leaf-shaped, see-through eel larvae drift all the way back to New Zealand making their way into our rivers and sometimes swimming hundreds of kilometres upstream.  The little eels are fantastic rock climbers, and vertical waterfalls are conquered with ease by these extreme freshwater fish.

But despite all their tenacity, the longfin eels are doing it pretty hard these days. First, many of their habitats have been modified or destroyed. Large dams are a problem, either trapping the mature eels at the top or being too vast for the elvers (young eels) to climb up. Many freshwater streams, lakes and rivers have become severely polluted, making the water quality too poor for eels to thrive in. Eels have always been an important source of protein in New Zealand, but a commercial fishery has added to their problems. Now longfin eels are listed in the same threatened species category as blue penguins.

Recently I discovered that not only are New Zealand's longfin eels disappearing through far too many being caught in the commercial fishery, but they are mashed up into tinned dog food for pampered pooches in the United States. Is that any way to treat our ancient taniwha?

For Maori, they are a significant cultural resource - and the myriad ways early Maori caught eels in New Zealand are fascinating.

It seems people have always held a fascination with our eels. When we were kids we knew that on rainy days on my Nana's farm in the Catlins, the eels could wriggle across the paddocks, and we used to feed a tame duck called Hoppy on camping trips to Frankton, who'd lost her foot to an eel as a duckling. More recently, my Dad in Christchurch and Mum in Dunedin have had pet eels in creeks next to their houses. These eels were well fed, getting anything from leftover roast chicken to mince. After the earthquakes in Christchurch, my Dad was really gutted that the liquefaction had come up through the stream at their house and he never saw his three pet eels again.

These days, it seems that more and more people are interested in feeding and watching eels rather than catching and killing them, and for these ancient river guardians, that can only be a good thing. What about you guys? Do you have eel stories you want to share?

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19 comments
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Reo   #1   09:13 am Jun 08 2012

I used to love catching eels with my Dad. He called em Tuna whakaeke and he only caught them on the second night of their running in the rainy season, we could catch heaps but only took enough for a feed, we used to catch them on flax threaded with worms and tied to a ti tree stick...was cool.

Jack Rivers   #2   09:13 am Jun 08 2012

Awesome article.

Yeah I use to spear them, but now I recognise them as the awesome native animal they are. If you still want to fish for them, you can wrap meat in wool and tie that to your line. Their teeth get caught in them and they can let go. Then once you've got them, you can release them and watch them swim away without hurting them.

It annoys me that there is more protection for the introduced trout than the eel or the whitebait.

TP   #3   09:31 am Jun 08 2012

Jack Rivers #2 7 min ago

It was also pretty horrifying to hear that when they first introduced Trout, people were paid to eradicate native eels, to ensure they didn't predate on the trout.

Eels are fascinating creatures, and their Maori, and indeed their polynesian origin stories are really interesting. It goes as far as in some polynesian islands, the three "dots" on a coconut are from an eel's face, as when Maui killed tunaroa he buried his head and from it sprang the coconut tree.

The Maori version is that he lured tunaroa into a river, and threw half his body to the ocean (source of sea eels), and half into freshwater, with tunaroa's blood seeping into the banks, where it can still be found in the red of the trees Matai and Rimu. The blood also fell in splashes on the pukeko and kakariki - giving them their red splashes of colour.

Tuna, like all kaimoana, is a taonga that should be used carefully, and sustainably.

Silarnon   #4   09:40 am Jun 08 2012

I've never caught or eaten eel. My Dad once got a bone from one stuck in his throat - the agony he endured until it could be removed put me off for life.

As a child my parents used to take me and the siblings to see an elderly lady and her equally elderly dog. To reach her you had to walk through stunning native bush. It was somewhere near Nelson, I think.

The old lady would sit beside the river with a big bag of mince, and some sticks. For twenty cents she would give you a stick, and she would put some meat on the end, and we could feed the eels.

In the river was a swarming mass of eels - from memory about twenty, all squiggling around fighting for space. They knew all too well that particular spot, and would lift their heads above the water, mouths open, hoping they would be the lucky eel to receive some mince.

It's a very find memory, and one of the great childhood experiences I had that taught me to respect nature.

Matty   #5   09:54 am Jun 08 2012

We use to hand feed them with huhu bugs or steak when we were kids. We never saw the same eel and their skin was 'velvety' to touch.

Mike L   #6   12:27 pm Jun 08 2012

We used to go eeling in the creek just down from our house as kids. I know the lake at Western Springs has plenty of Eels in it, grwoing fat from all the food given to them, they are almost tame.

J   #7   04:49 pm Jun 08 2012

Never seen an eel, have no 'eel story'. But I'm used to being treated like less of Kiwi just because I'm not a nature lover....

chris   #8   09:32 am Jun 09 2012

I love tuna, I love eating them, catching them and watching them. But eating them and catching them is becoming less common now. partly because I only seem to catch long fins which there is less numbers now not keen on killing off this wicked species, I live in the high country where long fins are more likely to be compared to short fins. In the local river (Twizel river) I haven't seen any for 3 years now and thats not good. Seen three in the canal I work on, all maturing, about 1.5m long fat and nowhere to go as the damn prevents them from going to sea. its thought that when eels start there migration to sea, if they don't like the conditions they reverse their maturing process and carry on feeding. But these ones I see look stuffed and can hardly swim, Maybe because they have spent all their energy trying to get out.Was able to net one up before I knew it was maturing with ease. Is their anything that can be done to help these creatures get to where they meant to be going? Like fish and game putting in some effort to help protect these native fish. we pay to catch the stoat of the rivers but not our very own species.

bellasmum   #9   04:49 pm Jun 09 2012

In Scotland we have salmon ladders, so the fist can get past dams and other man made obstacles, maybe we should invest in eel ladders?

I like watching the eels and feeding them, but yuck! Wouldn't want to eat them

Barry   #10   08:35 pm Jun 09 2012

Chris, I think if you contact the owners of the Colonial Motels in Twizel, or the local school at Omarama, you might be pleasantly surprised at just what is being done to save these Taonga.


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