New Zealand man apologizes for killing rare eel

Shaun James poses with eel he later apologized for killing; photo by John Bisset via the Timaru Herald

A New Zealand fisherman has apologized for catching a longfin eel that was said to be a breeding female belonging to an “at-risk” species, and believed to be about 90 years old.

Shaun James and his 14-year-old son, Joshua, used spears recently to kill the eel in the Opihi Lagoon near Temuka, a town on Canterbury Plains.

James said they were not aware that the 4-foot, 22-pound critter belonged to a rare species that is federally listed as threatened, at-risk, and in decline.

“If I’d known anything, I’d have said, ‘Josh, mate, just tickle it or take pictures,” Shaun James told the Timaru Herald.

The New Zealand longfin eel is the country’s only endemic freshwater eel, found throughout much of the country’s water systems.

These eels are unusual in that they participate in mass migrations to the Pacific Ocean, where they breed, and they do this only once in their lives. They can live 100 years or longer.

Longfin eels were featured recently in the Animal Planet show, “River Monsters,” where they were said to have been responsible for attacks on humans.

But humans, largely through damming of rivers and extensive fishing efforts beginning in the 1960s and 70s, decimated the longfin eel population.

However, fishing for eels still continues on a limited basis, and James and his son do not appear to face legal trouble for spearing the large eel.

But John Henry, chairman of Te Runaga o Arowhenua district in which the eel was caught, described the killing as “a very sad occasion” and added, “We would prefer if they left them alone.”

The Department of Conservation advises people to avoid catching them, and asks residents in farming areas to plant trees on river banks to create shade for the embattled critters.

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