At risk and on the menu

They’re as threatened as the North Island brown kiwi. Iwi are choosing not to fish them commercially due to sustainability concerns; overseas customers are confused about whether buying them will land them in hot water. So, why are we commercially fishing an at-risk and declining species?

Would you select a live kiwi from a cage at a restaurant to be killed for your dinner?

It’s a fate New Zealand’s eels face. In 2018 over 143 tonnes were placed live in polystyrene boxes and flown to the United States, China, South Korea Belgium and Canada. Some of these would have ended up in restaurants.

Conservationists and eel lovers worry a portion of these live eels were longfin eels, which have the same threatened status of “at risk – declining” as the North Island brown kiwi. Unlike shortfin eels, the longfin species is only found in New Zealand.

Longfin eels don’t have the same protection as the kiwi. Instead they’re part of our commercial fishing quota system and companies can buy the entitlement to commercially catch them.

This year, the legal commercial quota for the at-risk species is 137 tonnes, down from 163 tonnes in 2017.

Traditional preparation of live eels in some countries can involve a nail through the head to hold the eel still. Photo: Getty Images

Alongside the national icon, eels aren’t particularly cute. Public concern about this threatened species' fate on dinner plate tables hard to drum up.

They’re slimy, inscrutable, and if you grew up anywhere where they were once plentiful there were dire warnings, eels have a penchant for tender adolescent toes.

They’re also incredibly easy to catch. A single night of fishing can catch 75 percent of the estimated eel population in an area.

This ease of catching is a problem for the species explains native fish expert Stella McQueen.

Each caught eel is a virgin.

“Eels do most of their growing up in freshwater. When they are sufficiently old and fat, they migrate downstream. When they reach the sea, they swim for six months, and end up somewhere near Tonga, meet other eels, spawn and die.”

The average age for a longfin female eel to begin this journey is 35, although some wait until up to 60 years of age.

The larval eels, looking a bit like a “see-through piece of fettucine”, make their way back to New Zealand to grow.

Currently there are rules around minimum and maximum sizes for commercially caught eels, but McQueen points out unlike fish like trout, which may have bred once or twice before being reaching legal size, eels haven’t bred.

“Any eel that you take from the wild for any purpose is removing the eel from the gene pool because they only spawn at very end of their lives right before they die. It doesn't matter what age or stage you take the eel; it's never going to be able to breed.”

Farming isn’t an option to save the declining numbers of longfin eels in the wild.

“You can make all the fertile eggs you want, hatch out squillions of hatchlings. The problem is no one has been able to get them to feed,” said McQueen.

The hatchlings all die of starvation at around two weeks of age.

Why are they even on the menu?

Eels have been caught and eaten since Māori arrived in New Zealand. After European settlement the once important food source was seen as a threat to introduced trout. At one time eels were exterminated as “public vermin”.

In the 1960s it was realised eels could be commercially caught and exported. In 1972 over 700 tonne of longfin eels were caught. Eels entered the quota management system between 2000 and 2004. 

Source: 2013 PCE report

The abundance of longfin eels has been a concern for some time. In 2013 the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report written by Dr Jan Wright asked if the eel was on a pathway to extinction.

Her report says the longfin eels needs urgent help from the various agencies in charge of their welfare. As well as fishing, longfin eels face the problem of vanishing or degraded habitat. Dams also block their passage upstream and mince them in turbines during their migration downstream to breed at sea. 

A recommendation in the report was a moratorium on commercial catch.

“Although commercial fishing of longfin eels is far from the only reason for their decline, I have recommended that it be stopped, at least for a time. No other action has the immediate potential to reverse the decline of the species.”

An independent panel assessed the situation and did not recommend suspending fishing.

In 2015 the government of the time decided to “progress a package of management measures”.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is responsible for quota management. In 2018 after an assessment, the amount commercial eelers are allowed to catch was reduced to the current 137 tonnes. This amount is in addition to what recreational and customary fishers catch.

Some of the quota is owned by iwi. Some don’t agree the quota set by MPI is sustainable.

Moana New Zealand, the largest Māori-owned fishery in the country owns the right to catch 27 tonne of longfin eel. It chooses to sit on this right and not use it.

A spokesperson said this was part of the company’s responsibility as kaitiaki of Aotearoa’s waters and the fishing of the eel was one of the concerns held for the species:

“Moana New Zealand owns quota for both shortfin and longfin eels (tuna). Generally we consider shortfin tuna stocks are healthy and abundant, however our Iwi shareholders have said that they have some concerns about the long-term sustainability of longfin tuna stocks.”

What the industry says

The Eel Enhancement Company is an organisation representing North Island quota owners. Executive officer Tom Hollings said the North Island commercial quota has been cut massively over the years from 81 tonnes to 55 tonnes. In contrast the 2018 quota for the faster growing and earlier breeding shortfin eel quota for the North Island is 337 tonnes.

He said currently there’s not enough longfin quota.

“NIWA scientists showed we are only fishing 23 percent of the longfin range at present as we are only targeting low-lying water where the shortfin are. The longfin are bycatch.

“We still haven’t got enough quota for the longfin we catch in those areas, so we are releasing them to keep within the quota because there’s a very harsh financial penalty for over-catching your quota.”

Many of the eels caught in the North Island are processed in Te Kauwhata. NZ Eel Processing Company’s Dale Walters said export live eels are placed in plastic bags, with a little bit of water and oxygen. They can survive in transit for 48 hours.

He said the majority of live exports are shortfin eels and longfin eels are usually smoked. He can’t remember the last export order of live longfin eels his company received.

“Customers are scared off about CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species]. I think there’s some confusion around whether or not they can even purchase longfin. No one is interested in buying them really.”

Some of the countries longfin eels are exported to used to have their own eels, but over-fishing, habitat loss, and hydroelectric damns have decimated their stocks. Some have banned or placed strict restrictions on the catching of eels.

Source: 2013 PCE report

The question of live export

Since 2010 the export of eels has earned $52 million. Live exports make up 49 percent of the figure and represent 40 percent of the volume of eel exports.

The statistics don’t separate shortfin and longfin species, but live longfin eels available for export appear on New Zealand websites.

Live longfin eels available from Mossburn Enterprises and Southfish. Images from respective websites.

Animal welfare advocacy group SAFE are completely opposed to any export of live animals. For longfin eels this opposition is held on welfare grounds, and on the grounds longfin eels are threatened.

“Here in New Zealand, the specific suffering of eels is recognised as there are laws controlling how eels are handled and slaughtered. The way they are killed overseas is likely to be by methods deemed too cruel to be legal in New Zealand. We, therefore, need to end this appalling trade.”

New Zealand's Commercial Slaughter Code of Welfare says because of the difficulty restraining live eels concussion and brain spiking are not appropriate methods for slaughter but electrical stunning can be used. It also says eels must be rendered insensible before desliming with salt or chemicals. The desliming process can take an hour or more. 

When the Ministry for Primary Industries was asked if it had any concern the welfare rules might be different in export destinations its response was:

"New Zealand has no jurisdiction over the animal welfare requirements for animals in other countries, and by the same principle, other countries do not have jurisdiction over New Zealand’s animal welfare rules."

 A prohibition was put on live animal exports for slaughter in 2007, and any live exports require an Animal Welfare Export Certificate. Fish and eels do not require this. 

Erin Hampson-Tindale, a Waikato local and keen fisherman wants all eel live export banned. He’s so upset a taonga species which is threatened is being treated like this he’s started a petition calling for the cessation of live exports.

He suggests searching YouTube for videos to find out the likely fate of native eels but warns it’s not pleasant.

“They want them super fresh, so they spike the head on a nail on a board, or they have a machine to strip the skin off while it’s still alive, head and gut them and cook them while they are still wriggling.”

He questions what message the trade live eels is setting to young people.

"When are we going to stop putting money first and not having some sort of moral line?"

Stella McQueen thinks the live export trade is cruel and science has proven fish have sentience.

“They have fear, they have pain. These animals are packed into a polystyrene box with ice and shipped in a terrifying airplane and in a vehicle and then turn up at a market. It's a terrifying process. And we are submitting our native, our endemic animals to this. It's horrendous.”

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