Maximum size limit for eels now nationwide
27 March 2007
"Further measures to improve the sustainability of freshwater eels are being introduced from 1 April 2007, " Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton announced today.
A maximum size limit of four kilograms will apply to commercial fishers taking eels from the North Island and Chatham Island. The same maximum size limit has already been introduced for eels taken by commercial fishers in the South Island.
“The regulation will protect large eels due to make their journey to the sea for breeding. This measure should allow more eels to breed and keep the stock sustainable," Jim Anderton said.
“People fishing for customary and recreational purposes will still be allowed to take eels over 4kg, but I’m keen to hear if these fishers think the maximum size limit should also apply to them in the future,” he added.
Eels are long-lived and breed only once, at the end of their lives, far away in the south-west Pacific Ocean, and they die shortly after. Their eggs and hatchlings drift back to New Zealand on ocean currents.
"This one-off breeding biology of large eels means there needs to be a range of measures for them to have a chance of making it to sea to spawn," Jim Anderton said.
“Eels in the North Island were introduced into the Quota Management System (QMS) in October 2004, following the introduction of South Island and Chatham Island eel stocks into the QMS in earlier years. And the overall annual catch of eels taken is now limited in order to ensure sustainable use of the fishery into the future."
The intention of the regulations is to improve the availability of appropriately sized eels for customary and amateur fishing purposes, and to recognise the role that eels play in the broader relationships with other species.
“Eels have long been an important food source for Maori and, for inland kids, eeling is often their first fishing experience. For this to continue, and for there to be a healthy commercial fishery, we have to do all we can to manage eels sustainably.
Background – eel facts
There are three species of freshwater eels found in New Zealand’s streams, lakes and rivers, but only two are commonly observed – shortfin and longfin eels.
The shortfin eel can grow up to 80cm and live up to 60 years. They are found throughout New Zealand’s main islands and also throughout the South Pacific – in Australia, New Caledonia, Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands. Shortfin eels are mainly restricted to lowland lakes, wetlands and slow-flowing water.
The longfin eel can grow up to two metres and live beyond 60 years. They are unique to New Zealand and have penetrated well inland in most river systems. They are well known for their ability to climb many natural obstacles in waterways, although reaching the waters beyond hydro-electric dams and other weirs and culverts can be difficult if fish passage measures are not installed.
Both shortfin and longfin eesl breed only once, in the southwest Pacific Ocean, before they die. The tiny offspring float back to New Zealand on ocean currents, before entering the river systems in spring and early summer.
Large female eels produce millions of eggs, but because of their breeding patterns, it is critical that enough mature eels continue to make it to sea to breed successfully, as the next generation of migrating adult eels is reliant on the numbers of juveniles that have reached river entrances in the preceding years.
Young eels do not necessarily arrive at the same river where their parents spent the majority of their lives.
Eels have long been of significance to Maori. In good years, large amounts of eels were caught and preserved for eating and trading. Eels are considered a taonga species and are still harvested for cultural purposes, such as hui or tangi. It is acknowledged that cultural harvest has dropped over the past 100 years, and a decrease in abundance has played a part in this.
Commercial eel fishing
Commercial eel fishing started in earnest in 1965. The catch peaked in the 1970s with 35 small plants processing eels.
To ensure the longer term sustainable use of the resource, eels in the South Island entered the Quota Management System (QMS) in 2000, followed by the Chatham Islands in 2003. Similarly, shortfin and longfin eels in the North Island entered the QMS in 2004. Commercial catch was reduced on entry into the QMS.
The QMS provides a management framework to ensure the sustainable use of fisheries resources. Commercial fishers are restricted to a total allowable commercial catch for each eel stock, and their catch is monitored against these limits. The overall catch limit, applying to both commercial and non-commercial interests, is set to ensure that the use of the eel fishery is more conservative than the catch previously taken from the fishery. This will allow the eel population time to rebuild, while still allowing for some use of the fishery over the medium term.
Nevertheless, MFish and the Minister of Fisheries has set a target of 10 years (October 2014) by which time it wants to see significant improvements in the status of the North Island fishery, and availability of the resource to non-commercial interests. MFish has signalled that further management initiatives are planned in the short to medium term to ensure that this target is met. The need for refinement of management settings is consistent with scientific information recently made available to fishery interests, confirming that a cautious approach is warranted.
Other eel management initiatives already introduced
In addition to the reduction in the number of eels that may be fished, other complementary management strategies have been introduced. In order to improve the number of adult eels returning to sea for spawning purposes, some catchments have been set aside from commercial fishing. Non-commercial fishing has been allowed to continue, given that the level of this activity is insignificant in comparison to the potential commercial catch that could be taken from such catchments. The catchments where commercial fishing is prohibited for the purposes of increasing the numbers of migrating breeding adult eels include:
- The entire Motu River catchment (Eastern Bay of Plenty)
- The entire Mohaka River catchment (Hawke Bay)
- A significant part of the Whanganui River catchment.
A further sustainability measure, particularly applicable for adult female longfin eels, is to ensure that they are not susceptible to fishing activities beyond a certain maximum size, as larger female eels produce relatively more progeny than smaller female adult eels. A maximum size limit of 4 kg was introduced for commercial fishers in the South Island from 1995, and this maximum size limit will apply to commercial fishers in the North and Chatham Islands from 1 April 2007.
A separate but important management strategy for the use of the fishery is measures to be put in place to recognise the special relationship between tangata whenua and places of importance for customary gathering. Waters where commercial fishing has been prohibited for this purpose include:
- The interconnected Lakes Tahora, Numiti and Rotoroa, and Lake Harihari south of Kawhia
- Whakaki Lagoon east of Wairoa
- Lake Poukawa, near Hastings
- Lakes Kohangapiripiri anad Kohangatera (Pencarrow Lakes), and their respective tributaries, Wellington.
MFish remains committed to seeing what other options are available to better recognise such areas in the future.
MFish intends to look at periodic reviews of the catch limits that have been introduced for various eel stocks. It will also look at introducing further prohibitions on commercial fishing from catchments considered suitable refuges for large adult eels before they migrate for spawning purposes.
Threats to eels besides fishing
Besides fishing, eels have faced major changes to their environment that have limited their habitat and made it more difficult for them to make it to the sea to breed:
- Flood plain drainage – New Zealand has lost an estimated 90 percent of its wetland systems during the past 150 years. Much of this has been due to large and small drainage projects to increase and improve land for agriculture. Healthy wetlands provide excellent habitat for eels to live, particularly shortfin eels. Fewer wetlands means fewer eels.
- Hydro-electric dams and turbines – Hydro-electric dams can block eels progress upstream if fish passages are not provided. If eels cannot get upstream past a dam, then potential habitat above the dam is unavailable. Dams can also block eels when they are travelling to the sea to breed, if minimum flow passes are not in use. Calculations have shown that large breeding females and most breeding males are thought not to survive being sucked through hydro-electric turbines when power is being generated.
- Continuing drain clearance – Rural drains are mechanically cleared of silt and vegetation build-ups periodically. Diggers can remove eels with the silt and, depending on how the spoil is placed, the eels may not be able to re-enter the drains. Drain clearance also affects the habitat and potential cover for eels.
- Changes in water quality – pollution can affect the survival of eels.