We're just going from the slime to the ridiculous

RIDING SHOTGUN

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 08:43 02/04/2012

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Like most childhoods mine was full of wondrous things. None more so than the ever-present eels that pulsed on the periphery of my earliest memories.

Our family farm straddled a dark, mysterious tributary of the Whanganui River. On any given day my siblings and I could be found poking and prodding our way downstream preparing to jump out of our skins at any moment with equal parts fear and exhilaration. It didn't matter how many times we encountered an eel, which was often, our feelings were always reliable. A heady brew of the grotesque and the sublime - or, more accurately, the slime.

Many Kiwi kids have a suite of eel tales. Mine consist of apple- pied sheets with a freshly caught eel tucked inside courtesy of a loving brother. Riding in a small dinghy and being rammed by shockingly huge longfins to the point where I thought, if I fall out, I'm a goner. Squealing with nervous delight at catching a huge wriggler on the prongs of my hay fork and watching it writhe vigorously right above my head.

They are not an easy fish to like. They are not conventionally good looking and they play on some cavernous primal fear of slithery, snake-like creatures. Yet even back then I had a healthy respect for them. Today I totally regret that I killed them for fun rather than for eating. That was wrong. So, now I befriend them, feed them, and revere them. For many Pakeha that is hard to do.

The Maori name for the eel is tuna. I have always understood their relationship with the eel to be culturally significant and built on a deep understanding. They are seen as sacred guardians, monster seducers, are symbols of moving water and, of course, the phallus.

Despite this reverence, Maori hold significant commercial interests in eel fishing and are participants in their steady decimation. The Department of Conservation now classifies the longfin as "chronically threatened in gradual decline" - the same category as the New Zealand falcon (karearea), the great spotted kiwi and the kereru.

Yet Maori were excluded from the commercial industry until the early 1990s and were given a share of an already pillaged industry. Despite having 20 per cent of the eel take, some Maori today simply choose not to utilise their quota due to anguish over their decline. Iwi now find themselves engaged in solving the dilemma of over- fishing because they care about the eel - yet, perversely, were not part of the initial problem.

Given my own white tribe's fondness for wiping out any resource we can get our hands on I am not surprised that Maori were excluded for so long. Or that successive governments have failed to protect the species. The quota set by the Ministry of Fisheries is far too high. Not one longfin eel commercial quota has ever been met. The ministry would argue its quota system is helping to sustainably harvest the species. I would argue that commercial fishers never meeting the quota only serves to show the low number of eels. If they could meet it they would - especially when money's involved.

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Couple the commercial imperative with habitat loss and the writing is on the wall for the longfin. Sewage, farm effluent and fertiliser run-off are all doing their bit to see the species off. With New Zealand now just a giant dairy farm, hope is definitely fading for these special creatures. Dams and all manner of obstacles play a part too.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is undertaking a study into the longfin's plight and a petition is circulating through Forest & Bird's website. A moratorium is being called for on commercial longfin fishing until such time as it can be demonstrated that the current harvest is sustainable over the long term.

But let's get real and talk about why eels deserve respect and care. Here is the only creature on the planet (other than some insects) that breeds at the end of its life. Female longfins can grow up to 2 metres in length and live up to 100 years.

Despite living the vast bulk of their lives in fresh water they start and end it in the sea. They get the biological call when they are ready to breed, with the males leaving first for spawning grounds somewhere near Tonga. The females follow soon after and during the hazardous trip their stomachs turn into reproductive organs. They release up to 20 million eggs (which are then fertilised by the male) then die of starvation due to the absence of the stomach. The offspring make it back here (if they are lucky) and the cycle continues.

They are a mysterious and magical fish that hold many secrets. They are a thread of connectedness between the oceans and the rivers of the world. They are a New Zealand taonga that should be cherished.

- Taranaki Daily News

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