Tuna - commercial fisheries

In export terms, the commercial eel fishery in New Zealand began in earnest in the 1960s and expanded rapidly until the early 1970s, peaking at slightly over 2,000 t (tonnes) in 1972.

The commercial catch fluctuated over the following years and it was not until the 1980s that management constraints were introduced following concerns of overexploitation of eel stocks. A minimum size of 150 g was introduced in 1981 (this was increased in 220 g in 1992), with part-time fishers being excluded from the industry in 1984, and a moratorium on the issue of new fishing permits in 1988. In the following years, on a voluntary basis, the eel fishing industry agreed not to increase commercial fishing effort beyond the level of the late 1980s in a further attempt to reduce pressure on stocks.

Current management

Commercial fisheries in New Zealand are managed under a Quota Management Scheme (QMS), allowing a quota owner continued rights to catch a certain quantity of fish.

The QMS was started in the South Island in October 2000, and in the North Island in October 2004. Under the QMS, commercial fishers are limited to a Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) for each eel stock management area, and their catch in an area is monitored against these limits. The overall Total Allowable Catch (TAC) (which includes the catch of both commercial and non-commercial interests) is set to ensure that the current use of the eel fishery is more conservative than the catch previously taken from the fishery. This approach aims to protect eel stocks by permitting some fishing activity but reducing fishing pressure overall.

In 2007, a 4 kg maximum limit for freshwater eels was introduced to all commercial fisheries in New Zealand, with the requirement that eels larger than this must be released. This was designed to protect a proportion of longfin females, as these eels are particularly vulnerable to capture. With the exception of small quantities of eels caught for research purposes, it is not legal in New Zealand to catch glass eels or any eel weighing less than 220 g.

Both male and female longfin are caught in the commercial fishery – but because male shortfin eels are almost always smaller than the minimum commercial size of 220 g, the shortfin fishery is based almost entirely on female eels.

The text following is extracted from 'Sustainable management of longfin eels' (June 2012) -  

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI)  places a high priority on sustainably managing this stock on an ongoing basis, responding to any new, credible information that arrives. Three main methods are used to gain information about the ongoing state of the stocks. Together they give a good picture of what's happening. They are:

  1. The number of elvers of each species arriving annually at each of the 11 monitoring sites around New Zealand is collected, providing an index of "recruitment strength" for the river systems.
  2. Catch per unit effort information is collected from commercial fishers by species and area. These sets of information undergo detailed analysis in a four-yearly cycle. The results from the last South Island one are just about to be presented to a technical working group, and the next North Island one will begin later this year.
  3. Commercial eel processors report on the type and weight of eels received and what catchment they are from. 

Read 'Sustainable management of longfin eels' 

Commercial eeling and Māori

Many Māori are opposed to the QMS concept of continued (perpetual) ownership, as they regard resources as common rather than private property. Freshwater eels entered the QMS in 2000 (South Island) and 2004 (North Island), and as part of the settlement process Māori were given 20% of the overall commercial quota. In addition, there is a quantity (equivalent to 20 % of the commercial quota) which is available for customary harvest – ownership of a large eel processing plant was also included in this settlement. Since then, much of the North Island quota has been purchased by Māori companies, making Māori the largest eel quota owners in the North Island.

Fishing methods

Fyke netting is used by all commercial eel fishermen, with 100% of the total catch being caught in this way. These nets are extremely efficient at catching eels, and regulations govern the size of mesh used in nets and the size of escapement tubes placed in nets to allow undersized (< 220 g) eels to escape. Most accessible waterways in New Zealand are targeted by commercial fishermen, with the exception of national parks, reserves and some non-commercial areas where commercial fishing is prohibited for customary reasons.


The New Zealand eel fishery has both a domestic and export market. In New Zealand, processed as well as live eels are available from markets and suppliers, with eel dishes also being sold in restaurants all around the country. This industry has an estimated value of $6.1 m for export, which equates to around 830,000 kg. In Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, Taiwan, United States of America and the United Kingdom there is demand for New Zealand eels, which may be processed into various forms, frozen, or sold as live eels. In Japan, freshwater eels are considered a delicacy and importing eels has become increasingly important in light of declines in Japan's domestic eel catch.

References and further reading

Beentjes, M.P., Dunn, A. (2003). CPUE analysis of the commercial freshwater eel fishery in selected areas, 1990-91 to 2000-01. New Zealand Fisheries Assessment Report 2003/54. Ministry of Fisheries, Wellington. 47 p. 

Jellyman, D.J. (2007). Status of New Zealand fresh-water eels stocks and management initiatives. ICES Journal of Marine Science 64: 1379-1386. http://icesjms.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/7/1379.abstract

Jellyman, D.J. (2009). Forty years on – the impact of commercial fishing on stocks of New Zealand freshwater eels. In: Casselman, J. M., Cairns, D. K (Eds). Eels at the Edge: Science, Status, and Conservation Concerns. American Fisheries Society Symposium 58. pp. 37-56.

Kayes, P. (ed). (2010). National Eel Workshop. May 2010. Workshop Proceedings. 136 p. http://www.wananga.ac.nz/Research/Documents/National%20Eel%20Workshop%20Proceedings%202010.pdf  

Ministry of Fisheries (2008). Species Focus - Longfin and Shortfin Eels (Anguilla dieffenbachii and Anguilla australis). Site accessed 17/11/11. http://www.fish.govt.nz/en-nz/Publications/The+State+of+our+Fisheries+2008/Species+Focus/Longfin+and+Shortfin+Eels.htm?WBCMODE=Pr

Ministry of Fisheries (2009). Protecting our eels. The Bite. June 2009. Pp. 6-9. http://www.fish.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/BAD46EA4-7447-48A5-955A-66FF94FA5764/0/TheBite_ProtectingourEels.pdf 

Ministry of Fisheries (2009). FRESHWATER EELS (SFE, LFE, ANG). (Anguilla australis, Anguilla dieffenbachii, Anguilla reinhardtii). Tuna. http://fs.fish.govt.nz/Doc/21722/25_EEL_09.pdf.ashx 

 Ministry of Fisheries and the Department of Conservation. (2011). Commercial fishing for freshwater eels in protected areas managed by the Department of Conservation. http://www.fish.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/C17431F6-A066-42B7-BDD4-B7065539C8F8/0/Eel_factsheet.pdf  

South Island Eel Industry Association. (2009). Eel Fishery Plan for the South Island. Prepared for the South Island Eel Industry Association by Chisholm Associates, September 2009. http://www.waituna.co.nz/articles/south-island-eel-industry-association-eel-fishery-plan-for-the-south-island.aspx 

Statistics New Zealand. (2005). New Zealand's Freshwater Eel Resource. Site accessed 27/01/09. http://www.stats.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/E0089E2A-7FDD-48E1-9EA3-6896D3F8AE8B/0/freshwatereels.pdf.

Other links

The monetary value of the New Zealand export eel industry is estimated at $6.1 million. The types of products New Zealand supplies to the international market includes live eels, eel pieces, frozen eels and smoked eel. Credit: Waituna Brand
Map of stock management areas for commercially fished freshwater eels. LFE denotes longfin eels, SFE denotes both shortfin eels and Australian longfin eels. ANG is a combined code for longfin and shortfin eels (from MFish 2008).
Trends in the New Zealand commercial freshwater eel catch from 1965 to 2007/08. Credit: MFish (2009).
200911News.Photo:Donna Walsh/Waikato Times. NZ Eel Processing Company. L-R Glenn Watene, Flo Stevenson, Phil Ward gut eels at the processing plant. Te Kauwhata