A creature of mystery: New Zealand’s love-hate relationship with eels

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A man feeds an eel in the Maitai River in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. Photograph: Nelson Mail/Reuters

Native species have been revered, feared, hunted and tamed. Now experts hope revulsion can give way to fascination

by in Auckland

For many years, the top-rated attraction in the Tasman district of New Zealand was a cafe famed for its rural setting, seafood chowder – and tame eels.

For a few dollars you could buy a pottle of mince and a wooden stick to take down to the stream, where a blue-black mass was shining, writhing, waiting.

The largest eels were as thick as your arm and equally muscular; their eyes, blue and cloudy like an old dog’s, belied their vigour. They would lunge at the outstretched smear of meat, their pink mouths agape, often beaching themselves in their enthusiasm.

New Zealand’s longfin eelsNew Zealand longfin eels. Photograph: LazingBee/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“I admit I was a little scared,” wrote one visiting American on TripAdvisor. Other reviews warn: “Hang on tightly to your stick.”

The Jester House Cafe outside Motueka recently reduced its operation to one day a week, after 30 years of facilitating eel encounters – including mine. When I was growing up in the area, feeding the eels was a favourite activity to share with visitors from out of town. On my last trip there, in 2014, a boyfriend took a photo of me, arms and eels outstretched, that I later used on my dating app profile.

I can’t say whether it worked for or against me. As an attraction, feeding eels may seem surreal, even ill-advised: they are widely reviled. In fact, Jester House is one of many “eel encounters” across New Zealand. The Wop Wop Wetlands eco-park in the lower North Island markets itself as “fun for the kids and good for the eels”. At the National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika on the South Island’s west coast, “giant eels” share top billing alongside New Zealand’s national bird.

It reflects eels’ surprising prominence in Kiwi culture, largely unsung within the country and unheard of further afield. The two main native species of eel, the longfin and shortfin, are nowhere near as iconic or beloved as birds like the kiwi or kākāpo – yet for most New Zealanders, they are far more immediate, sometimes in unexpected ways.

A cultural treasure

Generations grew up with Patricia Grace’s 1984 picture book Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street, telling the story of a magical eel who brought together a multiethnic community. To the Māori people, who know them as tuna, eels are an important taonga (cultural treasure), revered for hundreds of years as a source of food, figure of legend and caretaker of the waterways.

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In the absence of large native mammals, eels are striking within New Zealand for their size and otherness. Longfins, an at-risk species, can grow to 1.5m long and more than 20kg; the largest – always females, and often over 100 years old – can reach 50kg, making them the biggest and oldest eels in the world. They can travel far inland, while shortfins tend to stick to coastal waters. Between them they cover most of the country’s waterways.

Though they’re nocturnal, eels can be readily drawn out from their hiding places by food, especially meat – hunters, gutting their kill in streams, have told of being overwhelmed. Many New Zealanders learn to attract them by cracking an egg into the water, though they will certainly settle for less. (I recently succeeded with crisps.)

Eels’ immediacy means encounters are common, especially among people who had rural childhoods. They may have fished for them, eaten them, killed them for sport, kept them as pets. Most New Zealanders will have at least spied them on a bushwalk, nestled in the tree roots at the water’s edge – then perhaps decided against a swim. Some (though not many) have been bitten. “I wasn’t expected to be attacked by an eel or eels, but I will go back,” said one woman of her experience at Raparapahoe Falls in January.

Longfin eel in a river on the west coast of the South IslandA longfin eel in a river on the west coast of the South Island. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

My friend Sophie remembers a piece of primary-school wisdom, gleaned from growing up swimming in rivers in the Mackenzie basin: “The first person in had to do a massive bomb to scare the eels.” When her principal’s son was bitten, two of his classmates caught and killed the suspected culprit in retaliation. They brought its body to school and laid it out on the tennis courts for inspection; the brave touched it. Sophie remembers it as being a metre long: “It was horrifying.”

Other eels have had better fortune, embraced as pets and even elevated to being local celebrities. In Dunedin in February, a pet eel was rumoured to have prevented necessary flood mitigation work. A ban on eel fishing was proposed in Christchurch in 2016 to protect a tame longfin named Doris. Last year an eel named Eel McPherson, kept in captivity for 35 years by a Whangārei family, disappeared from her pool, presumed swept away by heavy floods. “I could go out to a creek right now and get another,” said Eel’s caretaker – but “it wasn’t just any eel”.

And one is unnamed but notorious: in 2012 a man presented at Auckland City hospital “with an eel inside him” for removal. A source told a journalist it was “about the size of a decent sprig of asparagus”; 33 hospital staff were later disciplined for looking at the X-ray and records.

It adds up to what Don Jellyman calls the “love-hate relationship” between people and eels in New Zealand. An emeritus freshwater fisheries scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, he has been fascinated by eels since he was a boy. “I used to make pocket money out of killing them,” he says – paid a tuppence per tail by local authorities in Blenheim.

In the 1950s and 60s it was common for bounties to be paid on eels, deemed a threat to trout and salmon. (They have also been known to kill livestock stranded in ditches.) But later research showed that eels helped those fish to flourish and bounties were brought to an end.

By 1975 eels were New Zealand’s second-most valuable fish export after rock lobsters – leading to a sharp reduction in numbers. Over the past half century there has been growing recognition of their importance to Māori culture, ecology and commerce – but it is an often uneasy relationship. “There was always that suspicion that eels were everywhere and big and slimy and dangerous, often with very little foundation,” Jellyman says.

He has handled “thousands” of eels, some more than 1.5m long and says he has only been bitten twice. “It was entirely my own fault – probably plunging my hand in a bucket of eels and sticking my finger down one’s mouth by mistake.”

Don Jellyman with a 1.5m-long eelDon Jellyman with a 1.5m-long eel caught in the lower Selwyn River in Canterbury (and returned unharmed)

While he was a trainee technician in the late 60s, Jellyman’s study of saltwater fish was thwarted by chronic seasickness (“I thought, this is not a goer”). It led him to revisit his boyhood fascination with eels and find that “these weren’t just aquatic vermin – they’re hugely interesting”.

‘Survivors of all sorts of disruption’

Indeed, the life of an eel is an astonishing story. The larvae, called leptocephalus, emerge from marine trenches deep in the Pacific Ocean, and reach New Zealand by drifting on currents. Before entering freshwater, they morph into what are known as glass eels of only a few centimetres long. Then they grow – slowly relative to many other fish, sometimes only millimetres each year.

Each summer the elvers migrate further upstream, sometimes leaving the water to navigate obstacles such as waterfalls and dams. “There would be very few places in New Zealand that they couldn’t get to,” says Jellyman, though hydroelectric dams and reduced water levels have proved a challenge; at some tough spots, his institute has installed little ladders to aid the elvers’ passage.

Eels have survived the ice age and continental drift, they have been around for 50m-plus years

Don Jellyman

Having found a place to live, the eels stay put for years – sometimes becoming part of a community. Those resident in Western Springs Lakeside Park, near inner-city Auckland, are spoken of as friendly neighbours. (In te reo Māori, the area’s name is Te Wai Orea, meaning “water of eels”.) In Christchurch, where Jellyman lives, the post-earthquake rebuild has included terraced steps down to the Avon River, making a feature of feeding them; his grandchildren love to visit what they call “granddad’s fish”.

Jellyman is hopeful that engaging people with eels – “getting away from the image that they are scary and to be avoided” – will encourage their protection. Within New Zealand, their fishing is now managed both for species conservation and under the Treaty of Waitangi, with the Māori people granted continued access to fish resources. But historic take of the oldest, largest longfins has had an impact on the species, now classified as declining; while shortfins, too, are threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.

A longfin eel in New ZealandA longfin eel in New Zealand Photograph: BIOSPHOTO/Alamy

In a reversal from the eradication programmes of old, there are now initiatives across New Zealand to boost eels’ numbers, such as the “urban sanctuary” in the Manawatū River. But local initiatives can only do so much in the context of eels’ global oceangoing.

Eventually, sometimes after decades, most eels will set out for the sea, back to the tropics to breed. Māori – whose intricate understanding of eels’ biology and movements long predate European settlement – call this annual migration heke. But eels everywhere radiate out from temperate waters, then make this final journey back to spawn then die.

New Zealand longfin eels will travel about 4,000km back to the deep-sea trenches from which they emerged. For eels in Europe, it can be as much as 10,000km from the North Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas, over months of swimming. “And they do that on an empty stomach,” Jellyman says. “That in itself is amazing!”

But more than what there is to learn about eels, what drew Jellyman in is what remains to be found out – the “marine mystery”. We still do not know with specificity where New Zealand’s eels start their lives (though it is probably the South Fiji basin); a longfin larvae has never been found.

The precise spawning area is the “holy grail” of eel research, Jellyman says. But so far, efforts to locate it – primarily by tagging migrating eels, and sifting vast areas of ocean to look for smaller and smaller larvae – have been unsuccessful, and the attempt is increasingly impeded by the climate crisis. The impact of warming ocean temperatures on currents could have major repercussions for eels’ migration.

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Even if their first and final destination can be located, conservationists have little sway over the deep sea. “All we can do is ensure that there are good numbers of eels going out,” Jellyman says.

They have adaptability on their side. Throughout history, long predating humans, eels and their ancestors have flexed to move with the changing world. “Eels have survived the ice age and continental drift, they have been around for 50m-plus years – they’ve just hung in there,” Jellyman says. “They are survivors.”

But against a backdrop of myriad threats, “it seems that eels may be losing the battle here”, he says. For scientists, the gaps in understanding nonetheless remain to be closed. The enigma of eels is what keeps Jellyman working into his 70s, well after he “technically” retired: “I just have that ongoing interest and respect for what is really an amazing species … I can’t quite let it go,” he says. (Indeed, his passion is infectious: his son is also a freshwater specialist at the institute.)

But over half a century of study, Jellyman has also learned to appreciate eels’ mystery – knowledge that long predates his. Some 20 years ago, he remembers, he gave a talk about eels at a North Island marae. Afterwards, a Māori elder or kuia approached him. “You know a lot about tuna,” she said. “Do you know everything?”

No one could ever know everything about tuna, Jellyman replied. “That’s good,” said the kuia. “They are a creature of mystery, and there needs to be some mystery left.”


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