We’re a passionate people about our natural environment. From the kiwi to the kauri, from the black robin to Maui’s dolphin, our shared sense of responsibility to protect (and when necessary save) our native flora and fauna unites New Zealanders from all walks of life.
The longfin eel (known in Te Reo Māori as tuna) is this country’s only native eel. It’s an amazing species.
Longfin eel only reproduce once in their lifetimes. When the females reach about 80 years of age their instinct drives them from their homes in freshwater streams and rivers out into the sea, and onto a journey of thousands of kilometres to the Tonga Trench where they breed and pass away. Their spawn are carried by ocean currents all the way back to New Zealand, where they make their way up the rivers and that very slow reproductive cycle begins again.
Tuna are taonga to many Hapu and iwi, and at times in history they have been a crucial food protein source for Māori.
Indeed eel is a reasonably popular food in West European markets, particularly in Belgium and the Benelux countries. New Zealand fishers have long exported to Europe and recently there’s been some tentative steps towards selling into Asia.
The available science shows longfins are in decline. They are particularly susceptible to water pollution and sedimentation, and their slow breeding cycle has been disrupted by overfishing and damming of rivers.
Perhaps the starkest evidence is the size of the commercial fishery. At 82 tons it has dropped a whopping 96% since the 1960s.
Yet, for all which we do know, our longfins remain mysterious creatures – and we as a country don’t have adequate science to know just what is required to turn around their path to extinction.
That’s a gross failing on the part of Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, who is supposed to be responsible for fisheries science, as well as Conservation Minister Nick Smith who is responsible for the DOC estate where much of the population lives.
In the face of hands-off inaction from the Government, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, launched her own investigation into the status of longfin eels. Last week Commissioner Wright released her comprehensive report, and it’s a true landmark.
The Commissioner calls for better science, which is a no-brainer – but also for a total moratorium on the commercial fishery.
Now a moratorium is a bold step which would hit fishing communities and some iwi in the pocket. However if the eels go extinct the outcome is the same – only we’d all be the losers.
Conservationists and fishing industries around the world have long looked to New Zealand as an example of a country where the people care for the environment, and as a an early leader in science-based quota management. If the choice is extinction or saving our native eel, then I expect New Zealanders will want their Government to take responsibility and rescue our natural heritage.
So the Government’s deafening silence in the face of Commissioner Wright’s report has been truly disturbing. Ministers haven’t even issued press releases, and the only acknowledgement of the report has come from officials.
I asked Nathan Guy “Is he concerned that the longfin eel (tuna) might go extinct; if so, why, if not, why not?” and here’s what he said:
I will not be able provide the Member with a response within the timeframe available and will endeavour to provide this response at the earliest opportunity.
I received that non-answer three weeks ago but haven’t heard a peep from the Minister since.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment couldn’t have been clearer that the time for action is now. If we don’t commit to saving our native eel then it will go extinct – and extinction is forever.
Could it be that the National Government are so hands-off and hostile to the environment that they just don’t care?