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.
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.
New Zealand has two native species of freshwater eel:
There are over 100 different tribal names for freshwater eels, describing their different colours and sizes.
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.
The pā tuna (eel weir) was a common device for catching eels in rivers, streams and the outlets of lagoons and lakes. Weirs were used in autumn, to catch eels as they headed downstream to spawn in the sea. Fences in the water guided the eels into a net and then into a hīnaki (eel pot). Pā tuna were useful when rivers were in flood or flowing heavily.
Eels run mostly at night, so people sometimes stayed up to empty the hīnaki as they filled.
Most pā tuna were pā tauremu – two fences that funnelled the eels into a hīnaki.
The fences were made of strong stakes (usually mānuka) driven into the river bed, with mānuka brush or bracken fern between the posts. Water could get through, but the eels, coming downstream in large numbers, could not. The two fences were set in a V shape – upstream they were wide apart, but downstream the gap between them narrowed, and a pūrangi (net) guided the eels into a hīnaki.
The number and health of eels in a river were believed to be protected through mauri – talismans, usually stones. These were placed near eel weirs, often at the base of the posts at the downstream end.
A different type of weir was used on the Whanganui River because of the large amount of driftwood in the river. The pā auroa was a single fence, built almost parallel to the current at the top of a rapid. As eels came downstream, the fence guided them into a net attached to the end post and another single post opposite. Pā auroa had to be very strong to withstand floods.
In the 19th century, European settlers removed pā tuna to make rivers more navigable, leading to conflict with Māori. In the 1880s, there were more than 350 pā tuna and 92 utu piharau (lamprey weirs) in the Whanganui River. Between 1886 and 1888 over 500 tribal members petitioned the government to save their weirs – but by the turn of the century, almost all were gone.
The hīnaki (eel pot) was a basket-like pot that was set in open water with bait, or used at pā tuna (weirs). Intricately woven, the best-made hīnaki were works of art.
Ordinary hīnaki (called hīnaki tukutuku) had one entrance. When they were set without a weir, the entrance faced downstream. The eels would smell the bait, and swim upstream to find it. The hīnaki was anchored with stones and tied to a stake, a tree, or a pole driven into the stream bed.
A large type of hīnaki, called hīnaki tarino, was used in the Waikato River and its tributaries.
The hīnaki waharua had an entrance at each end – waharua means ‘two mouths’. They were set in deep rivers or in lagoons. Temporary waharua were sometimes made of flax leaves and used in the Manawatū River.
Neither of these were used with eel weirs.
The entrance to the hīnaki – called the akura – had a circle of sticks inside. These pointed inwards, touching in the centre, so the eel could push through to enter, but could not get back out. Other hīnaki stopped the eel escaping with a small bag-like net inside the akura.
In one story, the demigod Māui improved the design of the hīnaki. When his brothers tried to catch eels, the eels went into the hīnaki, ate the bait, then turned around and went back out. Māui invented the akura – a funnel of sticks that join at an apex. The eel can get in, but if it tries to get out it faces a cluster of pointed sticks.
Hīnaki were used with bait – often worms, or even birds. Bait was put in a small pot called a pū toke, which looked like a miniature hīnaki, or a small flax bag called a tōrehe. At other times it was tied inside the hīnaki. The Ngāti Porou people would thread earthworms on a string and tie them to a piece of flax flower stalk, which floated inside the trap.
Hīnaki at eel weirs were used without bait.
Hīnaki were often made from stems of mangemange (Lygodium articulatum), which only grows in the north. Mangemange is strong and flexible, and if hīnaki were being carried far, they could be soaked in water, pressed flat, stacked and lashed to poles. When they were untied, they sprang back to their original shape.
Around Ōtaki, north of Wellington, hīnaki were made from the aerial roots of kiekie and the stems of aka-tororaro, a climbing plant. Supplejack was also used, but it was a poor substitute. Temporary hīnaki were sometimes made from flax.
Eels feed mainly at night, so people hunted them in the dark, using a torch flare (rama) and a spear or hand-net. This method was called rama tuna.
Māpara, the hard heartwood of the kahikatea, was made into torches. Kauri gum, found in the far north, burns easily, so it was used with dried flax leaves for torches. In the South Island they were made from bundles of dry, finely split mānuka or supplejack.
Over time, people developed new types of torches. In a short story, Māori writer Patricia Grace describes rama tuna in the 20th century:
Before the night came, they worked all of them, to make their torches for the river. Long sticks of manuka, long and straight. Tins tied at the tops of the sticks, and in the tins rag soaked in oil. 1
By the late 20th century, battery-powered torches were used.
The kōrapa was a net used by the Ngāti Porou tribe. It was a hoop net on a straight handle, used to scoop up eels at night. When the eel was caught, the handle was lifted and the eel slid into an attached net bag.
Like all fishing, eeling was controlled by the maramataka (lunar calendar). One maramataka shows the first six and last seven nights of the moon as best for catching eels by torch light. Moonlit nights were poor for eeling.
Matarau or eel spears were commonly used. The shaft was around a metre long, and it often had seven points, including the sharpened shaft. A single-pointed spear was known as a taotahi, or pātia in the South Island. The spear’s points were usually made from hardwood, especially māpara, or sometimes whalebone.
Today, eel spears are usually made from a spearhead bought in a shop and lashed to a wooden handle.
Another common way of catching eels was bobbing, called toi. A bob was made by threading flax or cabbage-tree leaf fibres through worms or grubs. The bob was tied to a rod, usually of mānuka. When the eel’s teeth caught on the fibres, the person bobbing would swing it ashore.
Eels are largely nocturnal and avoid light – so eel-bobbing was done at night, or sometimes in the day when the water was muddy or discoloured.
A made-up eel bob is called mōunu (bait) or tui (to thread). Tui toke is a bob made from earthworms, while tui huhu is made from huhu grubs. In Ōtaki, spiders were put in a small flax bag. In the South Island, noke waiū (big white worms) were used with wīwī (split flax and rushes). Today, bobs are made from worms sewn together.
Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao, a South Island elder, described how conger eels were caught by bobbing:
The conger-eel (koiro) at sea could be caught with a bob called whaka-puku. This was made of whitau (dressed flax) tangled round a bait, which can be left all day or night. The only fish to tackle it is the koiro, as others cannot eat it, but koiro bolts it down and then finds he can neither digest nor spew it out, so he is held a prisoner until the fisherman comes. 1
Rapu tuna was another common method. Rapu means to seek. Fishers would search for eels with their hands or feet under banks or stones, or in muddy places.
In the takahi tuna method, a group would stand in a semicircle in the water. One person would stamp to scare the eels out of their hiding places, and another would grab them.
Fishers used a thin rod to kill eels in shallow water, often at night by the light of a torch. A companion would string the eels together and drag them along.
The piharau or lamprey (Geotria australis) lives in fresh water and the sea. Piharau resemble eels, but have no bones. Prized by Māori, they are also called korokoro or kanakana.
The utu piharau or lamprey weir was a straight fence placed across a river or stream, leaving an opening at one side. A net was set just downstream, leading into a hīnaki (eel pot). Piharau would swim along the fence to the opening, and be swept by the current into the net and hīnaki. Lamprey weirs were known as pā kanakana in the South Island.
The whakaparu piharau was a type of weir, made of stones and lined with ferns and grass. The whakapua was a bracken mat pegged to the river bed. When enough piharau were caught, it was rolled up and taken ashore.
As piharau worked their way up waterfalls, they were knocked off with a fern or nīkau leaf and put in a bucket. They were also caught in small hīnaki.
Piharau are mentioned in the proverb ‘Ka kitea a Matariki, ka rere te korokoro’ (when Matariki is seen, the lamprey migrate). Matariki is the Pleiades constellation, which rises in the pre-dawn sky around June, signalling the Māori new year – and the running of the piharau.
In the kope or kōpaki method, eels were wrapped in leaves of rangiora, raurēkau or green flax and roasted over glowing embers.
The tāpora method involved packing eels into a small basket and covering them with pūhā leaves and young fronds of mauku (Asplenium bulbiferum), which were cooked and eaten with the eels.
Eels were a valued food source in traditional Māori society. They were often preserved, and were then called tuna pāwhara or tuna maroke. The backbones, heads and tails were removed and the eels were hung out to dry - or partially cooked on a grating of green sticks over a fire. Curing them like this would preserve them for months, and they were hung in a shed or packed in baskets. For eating, they were softened by steaming in a hāngī (earth oven).
The first eel caught at a weir was put aside as an offering to the gods – a tradition when fishing or gathering food. When a youth caught eels for the first time, the catch was cooked on a sacred fire (ahi parapara) for a feast.
Live eels were kept in water in a hīnaki or a korotete (eel cage) – a special pot similar to a hīnaki, often made from mangemange stems. In Ōtaki, north of Wellington, these cages could hold up to 300 eels. Cages were put in a stream, and tied to a stake or tree. The eels were fed potatoes and other food.
The Ngāti Kuru-mokihi people of Tūtira in Hawke’s Bay built whare tuna – shelters in the water for eels. These were over 4 metres long, 1 metre wide and half a metre high, made of mānuka lashed with flax. The downstream end was blocked and weighted with stones, and the top was open. The shelter was filled with waterweed, rimurimu. Eels gathered there of their own accord, and were removed as needed.
Ponds or lagoons that had no outlet to the sea were sometimes deliberately stocked with eels. Matamoe and haumate tuna (two types of eel) were put into a lagoon that used to exist in Miramar, Wellington. The Ngāti Porou tribe sometimes dammed a stream and stocked it with eels, taking them as the need arose.
Each year, adult eels head out to sea to spawn. Māori often caught them in large numbers as they migrated.
In Wairarapa, migrating eels pass through Lake Wairarapa into tidal Lake Ōnoke, then head past a gravel spit and out to sea.
Tame Saunders, a Wairarapa elder, described in 1965 how the different types of eels came down in the same order: first the hao (king eels, about 30 centimetres long), then the riko (greenish-backed eels, about a metre long), then the paranui (dark, with thick skins), and finally the kōkopu tuna (up to 1.8 metres long and weighing just under 30 kilograms).
Around the time of the eel run, the mouth of Lake Ōnoke would close, blocking the eels’ access to the sea. They were caught by setting a large number of nets and hīnaki in the lake, with a single channel between them. The eels would swim down the channel, reach the spit, turn back and be caught. The traps were set just before sunset, and removed in the early hours of the morning.
Tame Saunders described catching eels at Lake Wairarapa using a technique called kōumu:
Another method of catching these tunas is to dig a large pit in the sand, about 10 yards from the end of the lake. A ditch is then dug from the lake to the pit, and as soon as the water starts to run into it, the eels swim into the pit. When the pit is full of eels the far end of the ditch is closed up, and the eels are left high and dry. 1
A number of karakia (charms) were associated with eeling – including one for the first eels caught in a season. This is a simple karakia to encourage eels into a hīnaki:
Tēnā te puna kei Hawaiki,
Te pū kei Hawaiki,
Te puna kei Rangiriri.
The source is at Hawaiki,
The origin is at Hawaiki,
The source at Rangiriri. 2
Before European settlement, Lakes Wairarapa and Ōnoke often flooded when Lake Ōnoke’s mouth was closed. European settlers, particularly farmers, wanted to keep the mouth permanently open to reduce flooding. Māori opposed this out of concern that it would decrease the take of eels. In 1896 the lakes were gifted to the Crown by Wairarapa Māori. Lake Ōnoke was eventually kept open to the sea.
Eels were caught at Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) by the kōumu method. Long channels about a metre wide were dug through the gravel between the lake and the sea. Water flowed in, and the eels followed. Then the entrance to the channel was blocked with stones, or with net traps called kōhau.
At Wairewa (Lake Forsyth), eels cross the shingle bar at Birdlings Flat in autumn. They are caught and stored for eating later – a traditional harvest that continues today.
Best, Elsdon. Fishing methods and devices of the Māori. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1924).
Guthrie-Smith, W. H. Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station. Auckland: Godwit, 1999 (originally published 1921).
T. W. Downes’ article from the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, first published in 1918, gives a comprehensive account of eeling and eel weirs.
Tame Saunders gave this account of the annual eel migration at Lake Wairarapa, published in Te Ao Hou magazine in 1965.
The annual tuna migration and harvest still happens today. This site has photographs and information on the harvest.