Species Focus - Longfin and Shortfin Eels (Anguilla dieffenbachii and Anguilla australis)
Eels are highly valued by Māori and are an important commercial fishery.
They were prized at important events like hui or tangi which would ensure the
mana of the marae was upheld.
Smaller average sizes, and lower numbers of eels has meant this
tradition is not as common today. However, eels remain a valued
fishery for Māori and for recreational fishers.
Customary methods included hand gathering, spearing, lines, eel
weirs, and hinaki (pots). Fyke nets are the dominant method used
by commercial fishers, who began targeting eels in the 1960s.
The main commercial eel fisheries are in the northern North Island,
Lake Ellesmere (Canterbury), and Southland.
Left image: A longfinned eel swimming up a stream.
Middle image: Body of a shortfinned eel showing how the dorsal fin extends only
slightly further forward than the anal fin.
Right image: The longfinned eel’s dorsal fin extends much further forward than the anal fin.
© Peter E. Smith, Natural Sciences Image Library.
Eels live in freshwater and some estuarine waters for most of their
lives until they migrate to the ocean to spawn. They are generally
slow growing and die after spawning in the South West Pacific.
Larvae are moved back to New Zealand by ocean currents before
arriving at rivers and lagoon entrances in the spring.
Longfinned eels distribution and management areas.
Shortfinned eels distribution and management areas.
Status of the stocks
Eels were first introduced into the QMS in 2000 to address
sustainability concerns. At that time, catch limits only applied to
the South Island eel fishery where both species are managed as
The Chatham Islands shortfin and longfin stocks followed in 2003.
Catch limits were established for North Island shortfin and longfin
stocks in 2004 and then lowered in 2007 to increase the average
size of eels and rebuild numbers in that area.
Research has shown that the average size of both eel species has
reduced compared to earlier times.
The amount of longfin eels, as a proportion of the overall commercial eel catch,
has decreased in recent years to approximately 30 percent of the catch, down
from 45 percent.
Current management issues
The biggest management issue in this fishery is improving the spawning
escapement of the larger female longfin eels. The government has addressed
this by reducing the commercial catch, introducing a national maximum size
limit of 4 kg for commercially caught eels, and closing some additional areas
to commercial fishing.
Research will improve the information on customary catch and the amount
of eels available in different areas. Environmental threats to eels – such
as habitat loss, pollution and hydroelectric dams – are managed under the
Resource Management Act.
Eel catch limits and allowances
The combined total allowable catch limit (TAC) for all eel stocks has been set
at 1,217 tonnes for the 2007/08 fishing year. Of this total, commercial fishers
have been allocated 850 tonnes, representing a reduction on the amount of
fish taken historically.
The government has allowed 233 tonnes to provide for customary
fishing (eg hui or tangi) and 108 tonnes to provide for recreational catch.
Non-commercial fishers can take six eels each a day and are limited to
one fyke net per person. Unlike commercial fishers there is no maximum
or minimum size limit for fishing activities for non-commercial fishers.
Another 23 tonnes has been allowed to cover such things as theft (poaching
and illegal sales), illegal fishing (eg mis-reporting) and injury of fish that are
returned to the water.