Eels for export
Freshwater eels have become an important export, often live or as processed products. They go mainly to South-East Asia, Europe and Canada. In the 2000s and 2010s annual sales have ranged between $3 million and $7 million.
Live eels and products such as smoked fillets, whole smoked eels or skinned segments are available from local processors and restaurants.
Worldwide, eel production is declining because of overfishing of glass eels (juveniles) and adults, and damage to the environment. Many countries farm eels, usually sourced from wild glass eels.
International demand for wild glass eels for use in eel farms is strong. The market is subject to fluctuations, and high prices can be paid.
Through the Quota Management System the New Zealand government controls and monitors commercial fishing, limiting the total catch to ensure sustainability.
In 2000, the South Island’s shortfin and longfin eels came under the quota system. Both species were treated as a single stock. In 2004 the North Island eel fisheries were included, but the two species were managed separately. Treating South Island shortfin and longfin eel fisheries as a single stock is questionable. Longfin eels breed later in their lives than shortfin eels, which makes them more vulnerable to overfishing.
Scientist Don Jellyman figured out the great age of some longfin eels in Lake Rotoiti – the oldest eels yet documented. He found that one female eel was 106 years old by reading the growth rings on its ear bones (otoliths). An average generation time of 93 years suggests that conservative harvest levels must be set in managing these fish.
Breeding in captivity
A New Zealand research team at the Mahurangi Technical Institute in Warkworth has hatched baby eels from eggs of the shortfin eel – the first time that commercial quantities of freshwater eel have been bred in captivity. The commercial and ecological implications of this breakthrough could be considerable.
Tame eels have become a tourist attraction in places such as Tasman in Nelson and the Anatoki River in Golden Bay.