A helping hand for baby eels

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2011
tdn eel
CAMERON BURNELL
A one-time fashion designer, full-time bushman, horse trainer and former manager of singer Bunny Walters seems an unlikely conservationist.

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The River Road

A river road tale The heart of hospitality Going, going, they're gone Canoeists speed down river Reserve a haven for tasty fare Dream ride restores one's faith A helping hand for baby eels Helping hand saves the paddlers Boys on river trip warned about didymo Paddles down, time to portage

Dexter Kennedy seems an unlikely conservationist.

A one-time fashion designer, full-time bushman, horse trainer and former manager of singer Bunny Walters, the Lake Rotorangi man is now the saviour of every Patea River eel.

Each morning with his two dogs, Fatty and Zoo, he follows a track to the bottom of the Patea dam to check and empty an elver trap there.

More often than not it is teeming.

On the fourth day of our trip from Patea to Waitara by paddle he invited us along to see for ourselves what happens to these thousands of baby eels once he gets hold of them.

"It's a satisfying job. There's lot of satisfaction to this," he said as he collected the 8cm long wriggly elvers from the trap. About 12,000 on this occasion.

From the scoop net they go into a bucket, then into a van and to the lake, where they are released, fanning out in lines like those on a whisky drinker's nose.

"I'm not sure how many I released all up last year but the year before it was more than 1.25 million. And then there are the hundreds of migrating eels going the other way," he said.

Even with Dexter's help to get past the dam, it is not an easy life for an elver in Lake Rotorangi.

A little bigger than a whitebait but obviously eels, they look tasty even to a reporter not inclined to the snake-like beasts. To a hungry fish they might just look like Christmas.

To make sure the ever hungry carp in Lake Rotorangi don't get them straight away, Dexter changes his release spot each day. It gives them a fighting chance to hide.

"It's a tough world under the water there. Everything eats everything. Carp eat carp, eat the elvers, the big eels eat the small eels. It's tough," he said.

Sounds like any office I have ever worked in, I thought, even before you take paper cuts into account.

"Once the kids find out what I am doing they love it. They follow me down to the lake, ask if they can release them or even if they can help collect them, all for a lollipop or a piece of apple or something."

But yesterday morning our help, which was minimal to say the least, was rewarded with a slap up breakfast of bacon, sausages, mushrooms and toast. And several cups of coffee, of course.

No eel though because, despite his access to hundreds of them, he hasn't eaten any since starting his job five years ago.

"Well, it's a conflict of interest, isn't it," Dexter said. "Here I am looking after them. I can't turn around and then start eating them."

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"Well, no, you can't," I had to admit.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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