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Slippery Customers

On the next episode screening 8 June at 7pm on TV ONE

Slippery Customers

A sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors have led two Southland men to a new life catching eels by jet-boat.

Grant Lightfoot and Paul Brown travel round the South Island in summer and autumn, setting nets to catch eels and sending them to a factory near Invercargill where they are processed and exported.

The Country Calendar team caught up with them in the Buller Gorge.  Most other commercial eelers use utes or trail-bikes to set their nets, but the Buller is largely inaccessible by road so a jet-boat is the most practical way to work - as well as being fun.

Grant and Paul headed to the West Coast from Southland in a convoy of two vehicles, one towing a caravan and the other a jet-boat. They travelled 800 kilometres to Westport and then worked their way up the Buller, setting nets and moving the caravan to suitable camp spots by the river as they went. 

They bait their nets with the leftovers from factory processing of strong-smelling fish, like paua or mackerel. The nets have a long wing leading from the front that attracts the eels when they smell the bait.

The eels then pass through a one-way entrance and are trapped, with only the under-sized ones escaping, using small tubes built into the net.

Commercial eelers are not allowed to catch eels weighing under 220 grams or over four kilograms. The upper limit has been set because scientists believe 80 per cent of all eggs are produced by eels that are above that weight. 

Grant and Paul check their nets every day, put the catch into 20 kg bags and leave them in the river.  When they've caught about a tonne of eels, they arrange to have the bags picked up.

Mossburn Enterprises, based near Invercargill, has two purpose-built trucks, equipped with oxygenated tanks, to transport eels to their factory.

There, the eels are kept in holding tanks for several days to clean out their systems, before being electrocuted and de-slimed in a special tumbler.  The next stage for most is being vacuum-packed, frozen and exported to European processors, who salt and smoke them for the local market.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, recently called for a moratorium on catching long-fin eels, a species that is unique to New Zealand and makes up about 60 per cent of the South Island catch.

She says there's growing evidence that the long-fin is in decline due to diminishing wetland areas, the creation of hydro-electric dams, and the impact of commercial eeling. The only practical conservation measure, she says, is stopping eeling until numbers recover. 

But Mossburn Enterprises' Managing Director Victor Thompson, believes Dr Wright is wrong.  He's been involved in the industry for 40 years and says the eel population is healthier than it's been for some time. 

To find out more, visit: 

Other sites to visit:
To view the Ministry of Fisheries eel management plan: 

To read the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on long-fin eels: 


Barrington West
Jeff Aldridge

Field sound
Don Anderson
John Patrick

Offline editor
Brent Whitwell

Online editor
Alex Wright

Sound mixer
Ian Leslie

Sound editor
Don Paulin

Vivienne Jeffs

Network executive
Jude Callen

Associate producer
Dan Henry

Production manager
Robyn Best

Julian O'Brien