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Innovation Stories: Iwi Eel Research

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Iwi eel research

Prized by Maori and valued as a delicacy in many cultures, the eel is a highly sought-after creature. Commercial eel exports are worth $6 million to New Zealand annually, with the price paid for eel being higher than snapper. However, it could be much more if supply met demand.

As eel populations have been observed to be dropping for years, the Whakatane-based Ngati Awa Customary Fisheries Authority is now combining traditional knowledge - matauranga - and scientific study to count the eels and hopefully boost their numbers.

New Zealand has two eel species - long-fin and short-fin. Mysterious, secretive creatures, the long-fin are legendary climbers, making their way to inland streams by wriggling up waterfalls and even dams. They breed only once, at the end of their long life, after a swim of thousands of kilometres to spawn in the ocean somewhere near Tonga, never to return.

Commercial fishing, wetland loss and the construction of huge hydro dams have all contributed to the eel's population and migration decline. Fewer eels are making the long journey to spawn, so fewer elvers are drifting back to New Zealand.

For years, Ngati Awa and other iwi have been helping eels to bypass river obstacles by guiding them into traps and transporting them up or downstream by hand. Now, as the obstacles get bigger, the Ngati Awa Customary Fisheries Authority is combining matauranga and science to create an innovative model for a sustainable eel industry and is working with the Ministry of Science and Innovation to establish the National Eel Association. The goal with this new national body is to get all stakeholders working together so that a sustainable export industry, customary fishing and a growing eel population can exist alongside each other.

Activity idea 

Encourage your students to learn more about the impact of habitat loss by taking part in this activity.

Read this article to find out more about human impact on marine environments.

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