Eels Deserve Protection

Eels may not be the most attractive fish in our waters but a lot of people love them - well, love catching and eating them.

Long-fin eel.

Long-fin eel

What many people don't know is that the New Zealand long-fin eel is declining and it's illegal to fish for them in Wellington's public waterways and streams. Nationally, their numbers have dropped so much over the last 20 years that they now have a higher threat ranking than the little spotted kiwi, kererū and saddleback.

Massey University freshwater ecologist, Dr Mike Joy, puts the eels decline down to things like intensive farming, urbanisation and commercial fishing.

"All of the impact is from agriculture and urbanisation. The barriers we put up like dams and culverts, the high levels of nutrients because of farming - which affects the water's oxygen levels.

"Then in urban areas, it's people putting chemicals, detergents and paint strippers down drains that end up in urban streams."

The Owhiro Stream, on Wellington's south coast, is an urban stream. It starts in the hilly suburb of Brookyn, winds down Happy Valley to the sea and discharges into the Taputeranga Marine Reserve at Owhiro Bay.

Since 2003, a group of about 200 volunteers called Friends of Owhiro Stream have been working hard to restore the stream to how it was before the area was developed.

"It had pretty much become a weed-infested drain - that was how a lot of people described it," says Martin Payne, a Brooklyn resident and member of Friends of Owhiro Stream.

For nine years, he's been helping the group to clear gorse, weeds and other pest plants from the stream's banks and replant - 16,000 natives have been planted so far.

"It's just been a progression of clearing and planting and then doing some advocacy for the environment. This is an urban stream and there's quite a lot of development pressure on this area."

Martin says apart from the obvious reward of seeing the stream's banks looking more natural, another gauge of the stream's well-being is seeing eels moving in and making it their home.

"They are an important sign to us that things are improving. That's what this project's about - creating a better environment - a pyramid of life with eels at the top and water at the base. It's very important."

Martin says many Wellingtonians aren't aware that it is illegal to fish for eels in local waterways and that's been a problem for Owhiro Stream.

"The hard thing for us, as volunteers, is situations where there might be two or three eels in a pool and next week they've disappeared. We had an occasion recently where three of them were maimed. It looked like somebody had taken to them with a stick or something, wacked them and they died."

Maybe if people knew how amazing eels are, particularly our long-fin species - which grow larger and live longer than short fins - they'd have second thoughts about taking them from our rivers or maiming them.

"The crucial thing for people to realise is the bigger ones are females and if they're a metre long, which is not unusual, they're going to be 100 years old," says Dr Joy.

"When I think back to when I was a kid and went eel spearing, I really cringe now to think I was destroying something that was way older than me and probably way older than my grandparents."

Those old eels eventually make their way back to the sea. They have to swim downstream and navigate the barriers we put in their way to get to the ocean, then at least another 2,000km to somewhere around the Tonga trench where a spawning frenzy takes place. The old eels die there but their spawned larvae float on ocean currents for up to 15 months until they reach New Zealand. The elvers then start their journey upstream.

With long-fin eel numbers drastically declining, Dr Joy says people have to change their attitude to eeling.

"I don't think anyone in Wellington or the country would go out and catch a woodpigeon or a kiwi and take it home and eat it. So, I think people need to start thinking the same way about eels. They really deserve that protection."

Eels are protected in Wellington's public waterways under section 23 of the Public Places Bylaw:

Public Places Bylaw

If you would like to become involved in protecting Wellington's urban waterways, check the Nature Space website to find a care group near you:

Nature Space

And to learn more about our long-fin eel go to:

Manaaki Tuna Lifeline for Longfins

Produced as part of Branch Out newsletter, Winter 2012