Eel protection on the table at conservation meeting

8:21 am on 20 July 2017

A Māori eel expert has taken matters into his own hands to save populations in New Zealand.

Small longfin eel.

Eel conservation was discussed at the National Māori Tuna Conference in Whanganui earlier this week. Photo: Tony Foster (CC BY-ND 2.0).

He is leading the way to ensure tuna, as they are called in te reo Māori, will still be around for future generations.

Allan Halliday said it was common to see eels swimming in streams during the day when he was a boy.

But in recent times threats such as commercial fishing, farming, and water pollution had caused eel populations to dwindle.

"The tuna population was dwindling, and I didn't know anyone who was doing anything about it," Mr Halliday said.

"I'd get invited to meetings with the Department of Conservation and the local council and I'd come away feeling frustrated because the response I'd get would be 'well, it's not in our long term plan so we haven't budgeted for it, so we can't do it'.

"What I came up with was whoever owns the table, they make the rules. So I felt that hapū needed a table."

In 2010, Nga Kaitiaki O Nga Wai Māori, an organisation dedicated to protecting fresh waterways, would be that table.

Since the group's inception, they've gained support and funding from NIWA and the Department of Conservation's Living Waters Group.

They say they have identified a serious issue with turbines in the Hikurangi Swamp which is owned by the Whangarei District Council.

Water at the Titoki power station is diverted to generate power, drying up waterways and killing hundreds of thousands of eels every year, Mr Halliday said.

A mutilated migrating eel Hikurangi Swamp.

The Environmental River Patrol supplied this photo of the Hikurangi Swamp with the photo of an eel that was mutilated while migrating. Photo: Environmental River Patrol

He said Nga Kaitiaki O Nga Wai Māori was involved in a programme to they capture the eels at the power station and transfer them to liveable waterways.

Environmental scientist Dr Erica Williams has worked closely with Nga Kaitiaki and said the protection of eels was vital for some families.

"Heaps of families still fish for eels as part of their local economy - it's not just a culture thing, it is actually a part of their day to day living.

"It's a win-win situation to have enough eels to eat and also for conservation and biodiversity."

Tohe Ashby from the Northland iwi of Ngāti Hine said eels were a taonga.

"Our belief is ... this is a gift that has been handed down from the gods. We have a role to protect that gift ... because they have their own role in cleaning up our waterways."

Mr Halliday said he believed many farmers were beginning to prioritise environmental protection and were fencing off greater areas around their wetlands to protect species.

Tuna conservationists from around the country met at the National Māori Tuna Conference in Whanganui this week to discuss ongoing issues.

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