Species at Risk of Extinction Served Up as Dog Food: A New Zealand Icon Under Threat

PRESS RELEASE – August 28, 2012

GreenpeaceForest and BirdEcoNZ

Dr. Mike Joy, Massey University: [email protected] +6421936205
Amber McEwan, Manaaki Tuna: [email protected] +64211690150

The largest freshwater eel in the world, once thriving in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers is now in decline and yet is still being killed for use in foods from sushi to dog food. Exploitation has been so severe that scientists are warning that this endemic New Zealand icon is being served into extinction.

The NZ longfin eel can grow to over 2 meters (6 feet) long and live for over 100 years before becoming sexually mature. Once mature, they swim from lakes and rivers down to the sea and then for thousands of miles to deep-sea trenches near Tonga, where they breed just once before they die.

The longfin eel was once  ubiquitous throughout New Zealand’s waterways. However hydroelectric dams, overfishing and pollution from farming have had serious negative effects on eel populations and in current times it is found in far fewer locations and in much lower numbers. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has allocated longfin eels a more serious conservation status than the little spotted kiwi.

But, explains University of Massey scientist Dr. Mike Joy, a glitch in New Zealand’s conservation laws still allows large numbers of eels to be harvested from the wild every year. “People think that New Zealand’s Quota Management System prevents unsustainable fishing practises but this is really quite far from the truth – no longfin eel quota has ever even come close to being met – how can management like this have any impact on controlling harvest levels?, adding, “With all the additional threats eels are facing, in my opinion, extinction is inevitable if they continue to be commercially fished at current levels.“

In a strange legal twist, the longfin eel has an “at risk” status (akin to a threatened species status in the United States), but this has failed to stop significant harvesting for human and animal consumption. Nearly all New Zealand eels are exported to overseas markets — markets that have already seen the crash of their own eel populations. In fact, a specialty dog food in the United States boasts “delicate New Zealand Eel (Unagi) from New Zealand’s pristine streams and lakes”, and an “environmentally friendly” seal of approval (this certification was removed after an inquiry for this release). When reached for comment, Jerel Kwek, the owner of Addiction Foods, which markets the eel specialty dog food, said that he believes “should there be any factors leading to the unsustainable decline, the Ministry of Fisheries [now the “Ministry of Primary Industries”] will take corrective measures to ensure sustainability of the species”.

The policy-makers in New Zealand’s government are reluctant to speak of the issue publicly. One official who insisted on anonymity went so far as to say “Work on resolving policy issues is underway, however it may not happen fast enough to save this species“.

However, there is a growing movement in the private sector both domestically and abroad. The group Manaaki Tuna (“tuna” is the indigenous Maori name for eel) is working to effect a ban on commercial fishing of the longfin, at least until enough biological data is collected to determine if any amount of harvesting is sustainable in the long-term. The ban would exempt small scale recreational fishing as well as limited fishing by New Zealand’s Maori people, as the longfin is an integral part of their cultural heritage. Manaaki Tuna, in conjunction with Forest and Bird, have thus far gathered nearly 5000 signatures to petition the government for the much needed longfin eel commercial fishing moratorium.

“The future of our longfin eel is looking quite grim, but there are still plenty of people on their side” – Dr. Mike Joy

For More Information:

longfineel fact sheet Download our Longfin Tuna Fact Sheet (pdf 2mb)

download photo pack Download full resolution images for media use (Zip File - 16mb)

Contact Us:

Mike Joy, Massey University: [email protected] +6421 936 205
Amber McEwan, Manaaki Tuna: [email protected] +6421 169 0150
Manaaki Tuna - [email protected]