Every year, in February, the migration of New Zealand’s eels begins. The male shortfin eels are the first to leave, followed soon afterwards by the females. Then, around April, the Longfins start their migration. It is at this time that the traditional tuna (eel) fishing takes place.
Not much is known about the Oceanic stage of these eels’ life cycle. But one day the eels leave the rivers and lakes where they spend most of their life, and head out to sea to breed. It is thought that the Longfin variety heads north to some of the deep trenches around the Pacific Islands. Even less is known about where the Shortfins go. They will never return to New Zealand, as once they have spawned they die.
Eeling the traditional way
The land around Lake Forsyth has changed dramatically over the years. Before the land was turned into pasture by the early European settlers, it was a deep lake lined with forests. It had a permanent passage to the sea where the local Māori could enter the lake in their waka. Since then, sedimentation has closed this passage and made the lake shallow and thus warmer, which coupled with the rich nutrients allow algal blooms to occur. One thing has not changed though: the traditional Tuna (eel) fishery.
One evening I was photographing a sunset where the lake meets Birdlings Flat. There I met Brent Ruru while he was getting ready for that evening’s high tide, when the eels would be swimming towards the salt water that pushes into the lake.
To catch the eels, the Māori people dig narrow trenches from the lake towards the sea. When the tide rises, the eels that are ready to migrate can sense the salt water and swim up the trenches to try to reach the ocean. They are then flicked into the pit and collected in a wet sack. The end of the tail is cut off and they are hung up to bleed and set.
Brent is one of the few surviving ancestors of the Maori people that have fished here for centuries. He is not only extremely knowledgeable about the area, but also very proud of his people’s tradition. He told me about the respect they have for the eels and for the waters that provide them. And I happily accepted his invitation to go back the next morning and be part of the eel processing.
The next morning I awoke excited and headed back to the lake. There I found Brent and his friends working together, cleaning and salting the eels. It was mesmerizing to watch people so proficient at their work as they chatted away, obviously enjoying the task.
The eels are slit down the middle and the gut and spine removed. Then the flesh side is sprinkled with salt which helps draw the moisture out of the flesh and cure the eel so that they will keep without spoiling. Brent showed me how they would have traditionally used flax to join the two sides back together at the tail end, ready for hanging. These days though, in great kiwi tradition, hooks are fashioned out of number 8 wire to hang the eel for drying and smoking. As the eel dry, they curl, and so they are rolled and stretched to keep them flat so they dry, and later smoke, evenly.
After a morning of work, we got to try the first pieces of eel coming out of the smoker, I am not always a fan of eel, but it was delicious, smokey and sweet and not at all fishy. It was then the lucky pigs’ turn, who showed a huge amount of excitement as all the scraps were thrown to them. What a banquet!
Whether dried or smoked, the finished product is highly prized, and Brent will trade some of it for other produce, for example Muttonbirds, with Māori from other regions of New Zealand.
I believe it is very important to respect and keep these traditions alive in New Zealand. Nevertheless, there is room for change in the management of both the fishery and the eels habitat. It would be amazing to see waterways such as lake Forsyth and its tributaries, designated as areas for regeneration of the native bush. This could help these areas become healthy again and provide shelter and shade for the creatures that live in them to thrive.
How do you feel about these ideas for regeneration? I would love to talk more about possible solutions for helping to improve our waterways. Leave your comment below or get in touch. You can share this project on your favourite social media as well to raise awareness of important conservation issues.
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Thank you for reading.
Thank you for reading.