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Groups join forces to save the longfin eel

Groups join forces to save the longfin eel

25 November 2009

A coalition of environmental groups, Maori, and Massey University researchers are calling on the public to sign a petition asking for a moratorium on the commercial harvest of the threatened longfin eel.

The petition, to be presented to Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley, aims to stop the serious decline of the longfin eel, which now has the same risk classification as the great spotted kiwi.

The groups backing the petition include the newly formed Manaaki Tuna (the Massey University Tuna Research and Restoration Group), Forest & Bird, Greenpeace, the Environment and Conservation Organizations of NZ (ECO), and a growing number of iwi groups.

They are concerned that, despite the increasing rarity of large, sexually mature longfin eels and decreasing numbers of elvers (very young eels) being found throughout New Zealand, longfin eels are still being targeted by commercial fishers under the Quota Management System, which is managed by the Ministry of Fisheries. “The eels being caught commercially are almost all in the smallest size range now,” says Massey University freshwater ecologist and senior lecturer, Dr Mike Joy.

The bulk of the commercial eel catch is exported. “Export earnings from the longfin eel harvest are negligible for the national economy,” says Dr Joy. “The commercial fishery is responsible for depleting a threatened native (endemic) species.”

“Before the 1960s, when commercial eeling started, there were huge elver runs,” says Caleb Royal, who has been researching tuna (eel) at Te Wananga o Raukawa in Otaki.

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“The number of longfin elvers seen nowadays is much, much less. The same is true of the adult migrations that used to take place up until the 1960s. The old people talked of streams being clogged with thousands of adults heading to the ocean for spawning. Now, that’s just a distant memory.”

Longfin quota in the commercial eel fishery is measured in tonnes,” says Royal. “The tuna population simply cannot sustain that sort of commercial scale harvest.”

In order to reproduce, sexually mature eels migrate to sea and swim thousands of kilometres to undertake a mass spawning event, after which they die. “It takes many decades – up to 100 years -for female longfins to mature to breeding age. They are at constant risk of capture all that time,” says Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell. “Every eel caught is one less which will breed.”

The larvae drift on ocean currents, changing into ‘glass eels’ once they reach New Zealand’s rivers. They turn into darker ‘elvers’ as they swim upstream.

“Eel numbers are declining for many reasons,” says Dr Russell Death, from the Ecology group in the Institute of Natural Resources, and a member of Manaaki Tuna. “Commercial harvest puts pressure on a population already suffering from loss and degradation of habitat (from swamp drainage and pollution) and barriers to migration such as dams. Improving the health of our river water quality is a vital step if the fishery is to be protected and restored.”

“It is not acceptable anymore to harvest native birds or marine mammals for food” says Hackwell. “Yet they are commercially harvesting a native fish species to the point of collapse. Because eels need clean rivers, they are a crucial indicator for freshwater quality.”

Manaaki Tuna is advocating a moratorium and a Treaty based co-management regime to protect and restore the tuna. “We need a very different approach to deal with this type of challenge,” says Dr Marjan van den Belt from the NZ Centre of Ecological Economics .Dr Christine Cheyne, from Massey’s School of People, Environment and Planning, and Manaaki Tuna member. "We have to involve all groups - communities, Maori, scientists and Ministry of Fisheries".

Dr Joy believes that with broad public support and good research, it will be possible to save the tuna. “It’s crucial that we act now to bring about a recovery of the tuna and clean up our polluted rivers. We urge anyone who shares our concerns to sign the petition.”

To sign the petition go to and click on “Lifeline for Longfins.”


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