The word tuna refers to eels – specifically freshwater eels. In some contexts it can also refer to conger eels and other fish that look like eels.
Tuna were an important food for Māori – especially freshwater eels and eel-like piharau (lampreys).
The origins of tuna are explained in several traditions.
In one tradition, Tuna came from Puna-kauariki, a spring in the highest heavens. The families in the spring were Para (frostfish), Ngōiro (conger eel), Tuna (freshwater eel) and Tuere (hagfish or blind eel). The waters of the heavens dried up, and this group made their way down to Papatūānuku (the earth). Tuna remained in fresh water, but Para, Ngōiro and Tuere all went to the sea.
Māui and Tuna
In another story, Tuna, a giant eel, frightened the wives of the demigod Māui. As punishment, Māui cut Tuna in half. One half landed in the sea and became the conger eel. The other half fell in a river and turned into the freshwater eel.
Tuna (freshwater eels)
New Zealand has two native species of freshwater eel:
- The longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii) has a long dorsal (back) fin. It is unique to New Zealand and is found in rivers and streams well inland.
- The shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) has a short dorsal fin. It does not live as far inland as the longfin eel.
There are over 100 different tribal names for freshwater eels, describing their different colours and sizes.
Ngōiro (conger eel)
The ngōiro (called kōiro in the South Island) is the conger eel (Conger verreauxi). It lives in the sea and grows up to 1.8 metres long. Ngōiro were caught using a ‘bob’ – a lure made from flax tangled around bait.
The tuere or napia is the hagfish (Eptatretus cirrhatus), which lives in the sea. It is sometimes called the blind eel, as it has no eyes, or the snot eel because it exudes blue slime when threatened. Tuere are not eels, or even true fish, as they have no spine. They grow up to a metre long and are good eating once the slime has been removed.
The para or frostfish (Lepidopus caudatus) is thin and long – 90 centimetres to 1.5 metres. It resembles an eel, but is silver, with scales. Para live in the sea, and often wash ashore in clear, frosty weather – hence their English name. They are said to taste delicious.
The piharau or lamprey (Geotria australis) is a slime-covered creature that looks like an eel but lacks bones. Piharau are sometimes called lamprey eels, korokoro or kanakana. Like eels, they spend time in rivers and the sea. They spawn in rivers before dying.