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Potential for Commercial Eel

Aquaculture in Northland

NIWA Client Report: AKL2003-032


March 2003
NIWA Project: ENT03101

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture


in Northland

Author
Erina Watene

Prepared for

Enterprise Northland
Aquaculture Development Group

NIWA Client Report: AKL2003- 032


March 2003
NIWA Project: ENT03101
National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd
269 Khyber Pass Road, Newmarket, Auckland
P O Box 109695, Auckland, New Zealand
Phone +64-9-375 2050, Fax +64-9-375 2051
www.niwa.co.nz

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced or copied in any form without the
permission of the client. Such permission is to be given only in accordance with the terms of the client's
contract with NIWA. This copyright extends to all forms of copying and any storage of material in any
kind of information retrieval system.

Contents

Executive Summary

iv

General Biology and Distribution

Eel Culture

2.1

Fishing gear

2.2
2.3

Harvesting the glass eels


Sorting and holding the catch

5
6

2.4

Transport of glass eels

2.5

Quarantine and Acclimation to hatchery conditions

2.6

Water Quality Requirements for Eel Culture

Temperature

Oxygen

2.7

Other Water Quality Criteria


Feeding glass eels

8
9

2.8

Transport to markets

General Eel Culture

11

3.1

Culture Methods

11

Pond Culture
Accelerated temperature facilities

11
12

Greenhouse System

12

Thermal water sources

12

Recirculating Systems
Saltwater Culture

13
14

Overview of past and present eel aquaculture in


New Zealand

15

4.1

Historical efforts

15

4.2

Current Research and Development

16

4.3

Factors affecting the commercial establishment of eel aquaculture in


New Zealand

17

Planning, regulatory and Treaty obstacles


affecting eel aquaculture in New Zealand

18

Legislative barriers to glass eel culture in New Zealand

20

Eel aquaculture in Northland

21

6.1

Previous attempts at eel aquaculture in Northland

21

6.2

Advantages of eel aquaculture in Northland

21

6.3

The opportunities for eel aquaculture in Northland

22

Wealth Creation

23

Employment and training

24

Opportunities for Maori

25

Selection of a potential location for eel


aquaculture in Northland

25

Summary of key points

27

References
Reviewed by:

29
Approved for release by:

Formatting checked

Executive Summary

This report provides an overview of how eel aquaculture ventures operate overseas and its current
status in New Zealand. It then provides further detail on the potential for eel aquaculture in Northland.
Eel culture or farming involves catching juvenile eels when they enter freshwater and on growing
them to a marketable size. Many factors need to be considered when collecting eels for culture
including harvesting, fishing gear, sorting and holding the catch, transport, quarantine, acclimation to
hatchery conditions, water quality and dietary requirements.
The three main eel culture techniques are pond culture, accelerated temperature facilities and
recirculating systems. Additionally, saltwater culture is conducted in the UK, Italy, Australia, France
and Germany.
Asia and Europe are the largest markets for eel products and the European eel Anguilla anguilla and
the Japanese eel Anguilla japonica are the favoured species. However, a decline in Asian and
European glass eel stocks, has led to opportunities for utilising glass eel stocks of other non-exploited
species such as the New Zealand, Australian and North American anguillids. In 1999 global eel
aquaculture was worth US$1.1 billion.
Three species of eel are found in New Zealand. Historically eel culture efforts were unsuccessful due
to a number of reasons, however, current research in New Zealand is investigating saltwater culture of
glass eels and eel fattening. An advantage of saltwater culture is that fungal diseases are suppressed.
Northland would be an ideal location for eel aquaculture as it has access to warm ambient water,
which is necessary for good growth rates for eels. Previous research has shown that temperature is
important for eel growth and 25-26C is optimal for New Zealand eels. The best location at the
present time for glass eel aquaculture in Northland would be Bream Bay Aquaculture Park. However
there will be many other locations within Northland suitable for the development of eel on-growing
facilities.
Current barriers to commercial eel culture in New Zealand are legislative and are yet to be overcome.
The Ministry of Fisheries and the Department of Conservation are jointly responsible for the
management of eels and eel fisheries in New Zealand.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

General Biology and Distribution


There are 16 species of freshwater eel throughout the world (Figure 1), three of which
are found in New Zealand, the endemic longfin (Anguilla dieffenbachii, Gray), the
shortfin eel (Anguilla australis, Richardson), and the Australian longfin (Anguilla
reinhardtii, Steindachner) (Jellyman et al. 1996; Chisnall 2000; McDowall 2000).

Figure 1. World distribution of Anguilla species (Source: McDowall 1990)

The longfin eel is unique to New Zealand, where it is most commonly found
inhabiting stony fast-flowing rivers. This species has a well-deserved reputation as a
legendary climber, and the remarkable ability of longfins to pass both natural and
artificial barriers has enabled these eels to penetrate well inland where they inhabit
many of the high country lakes (Jellyman et al. 1996; Chisnall 2000; McDowall
2000). Longfin eels are the most widespread freshwater eel species in this country
(Figure 2).

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

Figure 2. Distribution of longfin eels throughout New Zealand.

The shortfin eel also possesses a significant ability to climb large obstacles, although
they are not found as far inland as longfins (Figure 3). At the lower elevations,
shortfin eels are numerous in lowland lakes, coastal lagoons, wetlands, streams and
low flowing rivers. The shortfin eel is not unique to New Zealand, with populations
also being found in South-east Australia and Tasmania, New Caledonia and some
South Pacific Islands.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

Figure 3. Distribution of shortfin eels throughout New Zealand

The third species found within New Zealand is the Australian longfin (Anguilla
reinhardtii, Steindachner). This species is most commonly found along the eastern
seaboard of Australia, from Queensland to Tasmania, and in New Zealand has only
been recently discovered at the top of the North Island, where populations are
localised (Jellyman et al. 1996; Chisnall 2000; McDowall 2000).

Anguillid eels have a unique lifecycle in which the sexually mature adult eels migrate
out to sea to spawn at depths of > 300 m. The tiny larval eels, or leptocephali (Figure
4), are then thought to be carried in large numbers by oceanic currents back to the
continental shelf before they metamorphose into the next developmental stage known
as glass eels (up to 12 18 months of age). The glass eels are carried by tides into the
estuaries of coastal rivers where they undergo further development to become elvers

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

(up to 1 3 years of age), which have adopted the adult form in all respects other than
size (McDowall 1990, Gooley et al. 1999).

Figure 4. Leptocephali (Eel larvae)

Although the spawning of adults of several species of eels has been achieved in the
laboratory, larvae have not been reared beyond 50 60 days. Therefore eel farming is
dependent on capture of juvenile eels when they enter freshwater from the sea in
spring. Glass eels (Figure 5) enter New Zealand streams and rivers between August
and December each year, at this stage the eels are 5.5 6.5 cm long and transparent
(Gooley et al. 1999).

Figure 5. Glass eels

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

Eel Culture
Eel culture or farming involves catching juvenile eels when they enter freshwater and
on-growing them to a marketable size.

2.1

Fishing gear
Fishing gear depends on the site to be fished and on the type of gear available.
Passive gear (hell nets, glass eel nets, stow nets, modified whitebait nets) require poles
or anchors (or both depending on tidal velocity) for fixing wings, with buoys attached,
floated headline and weighted leadline, mesh size 2mm diamond mesh or less, with a
detachable codend of mesh size 0.5 mm. Active gear (nets which require energy to be
propelled through the water column) should be robust enough to cope with heavy
catches and strong water flows without breakage (Anon 2000).

2.2

Harvesting the glass eels


During late winter and spring each year, glass eels migrate upstream from the
estuarine areas. This migration has been described by Jellyman (1979) in great detail
for the Waikato River. The movement of glass eels, is thought to be influenced by
water temperature. Generally when water temperatures are beginning to rise from
winter low temperatures, to temperatures of 6C glass eels will begin to migrate
(Anon 2000).

Before planning the harvest operation, it is important to ensure that the eels can easily
be removed from the site, by checking that launching ramps, jetties and access to
transport tanks and equipment are easily accessible (Anon 2000).

Fishing gear is best set at the harvesting site during low slack water on or just after
sunset.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

2.3

Sorting and holding the catch


A series of sieves fitted with 10 mm, 3.5 mm, and fine <1 mm mesh are used to sort
the glass eels from the bycatch. Glass eels are quite vigorous and separation is not too
difficult with up to 90% of the glass eels separating easily (Anon 2000).

Glass eels can be held in fish bins of water aerated with a 12V or 3V air pump or on
an oxygen cylinder, with airline and airstones. Densities of glass eels should be kept
low in the field, but up to 5kg/50L is acceptable for short term holding with regular
water exchange (Anon 2000).

2.4

Transport of glass eels


Glass eels are typically transported over long distances in double plastic bags filled
1/3 with water and 2/3 with industrial grade oxygen. These bags are non porous heavy
grade polyethylene plastic bags of around 20l capacity, which can be sealed with
rubber bands or rubber elasticator rings, then placed in cardboard or polystyrene boxes
and taped closed. Up to 2kg of glass eels per bag may be transported for up to 6 12
hours. The containers need to be kept cool and insulated from extreme temperature
change during transit (Anon 2000).

2.5

Quarantine and Acclimation to hatchery conditions


In Japan, glass eels are often immersed in a bath of oxolinic acid for 6 hours to
disinfect them of any adhering bacteria when they arrive at the eel farm (Usui 1991).
Some farms dont take this step as the glass eels fresh from the sea are thought to be
virtually disease free (Jellyman 1995). One farm in Australia (Eels Down Under Cairns) no longer uses antibiotics, formalin or other chemicals, they treat most of their
disease problems with salinity changes (OSullivan 1999).

In Australia, glass eels of A. australis are generally weaned and reared in freshwater at
temperatures between 20 - 25C. The Australians have developed a protocol for the
acclimation of newly caught glass eels to aquaculture conditions.

The protocol

includes a period of up to 5 days during which the temperature of the holding water is

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

slowly increased, and the salinity is slowly decreased. During this time the eels are
not fed, and water quality is maintained at the highest level (Anon 2000).

The Dutch eel farming industry do not include an acclimation period to freshwater for
newly caught glass eels, instead, emphasis is placed on obtaining glass eels of high
quality.

Japanese eel farmers previously had an acclimation process involving

decreasing salinity, but now they prefer to transfer the glass eels directly into
freshwater, then allow them to rest for up to one week before feeding (Anon 2000).
2.6

Water Quality Requirements for Eel Culture

Temperature
Water temperature regulates the activity of eels. For wild New Zealand eels activity is
reduced to zero at between 5-6C (Jellyman 1991, Jellyman 1995). In eel farms it has
been shown that eels stop feeding when water temperatures fall below 10C (Jellyman
and Coates, 1976, Jellyman 1995). Fluctuations in temperature also disrupt feeding
behaviour. Excessive temperatures result in excess activity, heat stress and ultimately
death.

Jellyman and Coates (1976) reported that a constant temperature between 20-25C
was optimal for culture of New Zealand eels. Other researchers suggest optimal
temperatures for growth of A. anguilla as 22-23C (Sadler 1979) and 26.5C
(Seymour 1989); and for A. japonica as 23-30C (Usui 1974). In 1992 Gousset
reported research that indicated that the highest food conversion for A. japonica
occurred at 26C, but food consumption and growth rates were highest around 30C.
On the basis of this information Jellyman (1995) now suggests that a year-round water
temperature of 25-26C would be optimal for culture of New Zealand eels.

Oxygen
Oxygen consumption by eels increases linearly with increasing size, while activity and
oxygen uptake increase with increased temperature. Therefore warm water promotes
activity and growth but contains less oxygen than cold water. Eels are tolerant of

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

relatively low levels of dissolved oxygen. As a rule of thumb, oxygen levels must not
fall below 1 mg/l; below this level eels become stressed and rise to gulp air at the
water surface (Jellyman 1995).
Additional dissolved oxygen can be provided by the use of mechanical aeration, direct
addition of oxygen, or promoting the growth of phytoplankton (Jellyman 1995).

Other Water Quality Criteria


Typical pH range in eel ponds is 4.6 9.1 (Gousset 1992, Jellyman 1995). pH has an
effect on the toxicity of free ammonia in the water, a waste product of eels that is toxic
at low concentrations; the toxicity of ammonia increases with increasing pH.
Increased aeration and water exchange are effective in managing ammonia
concentrations.
Organic matter (eel faeces, waste food, decaying phytoplankton, biofilms) can become
a problem with extra ammonia being produced during the decomposition process.
Therefore it is important that organic material is removed.

The preferred range of water quality parameters for eels are summarised in Table 1:

Parameter
Temperature (C)
Dissolved Oxygen (mg/l)
PH
Light
Total hardness (mg/l as
CaCO3)
Total Nitrogen (mg/l)

Acceptable Range
22-28
>5
7-9
Intense light to be
avoided
>50 - <500
<0.5

Suspended solids (mg/l)

<40

Iron (mg/l)
Hydrogen sulphide (mg/l)

<0.1
<0.002

Comments
Growth will be optimised in this range

Eels prefer shaded or subdued light


(including dark conditions).

Ammonia toxicity increases with incr. pH


and T.
Eels are adaptable to a wide turbidity
range.

Table 1: Water quality parameters for eel culture


(Usui 1991, Gooley et al. 1999, Anon 2000)

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

2.7

Feeding glass eels

The dietary requirements of an eel changes during its life. The leptocephalus (larval
phase) feed on zooplankton in the sea, but after metamorphosis a more omnivorous
diet is observed. During metamorphosis from leptocephalus to glass eel, apparently
no feeding occurs during a fasting stage. The glass eel still has an empty gut, and
little food is found even in those eels with first pigmentation at capture. Once active
freshwater feeding begins, more strongly pigmented eels are found to have food in
their stomachs. The food of the later stage glass eels include copepods, polychaetes
(bristle worms), oligochaetes (smooth worms), amphipods and aquatic insect larvae
(Anon 2000).

Glass eels of A. australis will commence feeding on diets of either live, newly hatched
brine shrimp (Artemia), common carp (Cyprinus carpio) roe, hoki (Macruronus
novaezelandiae) roe, and/or freshly minced fish flesh of different species (eg.
Rainbow trout, carp) (Anon 2000, Jellyman 2002). Australian researchers suggest that
carp roe is the most suitable first feed for glass eels, but state that roe of other
commonly available marine and freshwater species may be suitable (Anon 2000). In
New Zealand, hoki roe is preferred as the first feed (Jellyman 2002).

To initiate feeding a floating mesh tray (on which the food is placed) can be put in
each tank, it acts as both a resting station and a feeding platform. Glass eels are
usually fed a natural diet initially (four to five times a day) to break the fasting stage,
before being placed on an artificial diet (Anon 2000).
2.8

Transport to markets
Live eels can be transported in small quantities in tray-boxes; large consignments can
be shipped in aerated freshwater tanks by road and by sea.

A typical wooden tray-box contains four lift-out trays about 50mm deep, each
designed to hold about 10kg of eels graded according to size. The top tray is usually
filled with crushed ice, so that cold melt water trickles down through the eels during
the journey to keep them cool and lively. The bottom of the box has 50mm upstands
at either end inside, so that in effect there are four layers of eels and a layer of ice in
each box.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

Figure 6. Tray box for live eels

Each tray has drain holes and is divided across the middle to make a total of eight
compartments holding about 5kg each, which is about 40kg for the whole box. The
lid of the box is nailed on, and the whole is steel-banded both to prevent pilferage and
to prevent the eels escaping through the joints.

Boxes of this type are used

successfully for live transport within the UK and Europe with little or no loss. The
trays can be banded together in a stack and protected against damage if necessary by
an outer wooden crate.

In Northern Ireland, large consignments of live eels are transported to and from
Europe in specially built road vehicles or ships. The eels are carried by road in
sectional tanks in which the water is continuously pump-circulated and aerated by a
compressor throughout the journey; the stowage rate is about one tonne of eels to one
tonne of water. For carriage by sea, or for storage at the delivery end, specially built
tank craft are used with perforated sides and bottoms, again fitted with water pumps
and aeration equipment. The tanks are made of steel with 10mm diameter perforations
at 20mm intervals.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

10

General Eel Culture


Eel culture or farming involves catching juvenile eels when they enter freshwater and
on growing them to a marketable size.

3.1

Culture Methods
There are three main methods currently used for eel culture, pond culture, accelerated
temperature culture and the use of recirculating systems. Most eel culture methods
use freshwater, however saltwater culture of eels will also be discussed in this section.

Pond Culture
This type of farming originated in Japan but is being used through out the world now.
It involves the use of open ponds. Glass eels are grown to market size using four
different sized ponds. Initially the glass eels are placed into training ponds, which
may be 5 m in diameter at a density of about 400 g/m2. Twenty to fifty percent
mortality of eels may occur during the first month. Weak, stunted or diseased eels
must be removed as soon as possible. After 20 30 days, when the eels reach
between 8 12 cm in length, they are caught and graded into two size classes and
transferred to the second sized pond (30 100 m2). In the second pond stocking
density is about 100 g/m2. After a further 20 30 days the elvers now about 12 cm
long, are caught again, sorted by size, and placed in the outdoor fingerling ponds until
they are large enough to go into the adult ponds (Usui 1991).
The time frames for cultured eels to reach market size vary because growth rates vary
between ponds and from farmer to farmer according to the efficiency of their
operations. Additionally as better techniques are introduced better growth results. At
present in Japan most eels reach 60 g by the end of the first growing season and 150
200 g at the end of the second growing season, although faster and slower rates have
been observed (Usui 1991).
The use of pond systems in New Zealand is still in the experimental phase, but results
to date have been encouraging. Densities of eels have been manipulated which has
allowed good growth.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

11

Accelerated temperature facilities


Eels grow faster in warmer water, and temperatures of range 24C 26C are thought
to be optimum. Higher than ambient temperatures can be achieved by using thermal
water sources (geothermal, or heated effluent from industry), enclosing ponds to
utilise solar energy (greenhouse systems), or by heating (and recirculating) water
directly via heat pumps or heat exchangers.

Greenhouse System
The common feature of greenhouse culture is the use of solar radiation to maintain
warm water temperatures during summer; during winter some supplementary heating
is required. The greenhouse unit is a cheap shelter and a convenient solar energy
collector and promotes the growth of phytoplankton, which mineralises organic wastes
(Jellyman 1995). The main advantages over static pond culture are:

Easier stock management

Reduced water consumption

Higher rearing density

Improved food conversion

Improved growth rates

Higher production

Thermal water sources


Warm water effluent from industrial processes can be suitable for eel culture. Power
plants produce large volumes of heated water which is often not utilised. There are
several eel farms around the world which use this warm effluent water. Gousset
(1992) details the use of effluent water from Japanese nuclear power stations and
industry, for eel farming in these cases water passed through the eel tanks in a
simple single-pass system (Jellyman 1995).
The main problems in Europe with eel farms that use thermal effluent are:

Lack of reliability in the quality (temperature, chemistry) and quantity of the


effluent

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

12

Seasonal temperature fluctuations

Huge investment and running costs of the water feeding system (pump and
ducts)

Disease problems

Geothermal water solves most of these problems but water quality remains a problem.
If the water quality is not good enough for eel culture, one has to use another source
and heat exchange it with the geothermal water (Jellyman 1995). An eel farm in
Slovakia uses geothermal water from a well at 42C to heat freshwater in order to
grow A. anguilla to commercial size in 18-20 months (Lund et al. 1998).

Recirculating Systems
Indoor recirculation farming systems are used extensively in Europe for two main
reasons. Firstly, in northern Europe the climate during winter makes greenhouse
culture unsuitable, whereas in Mediterranean countries like Italy the climate is milder
and eels can be cultured in outdoor ponds. Secondly, in countries such as Denmark,
Germany and Holland, regulatory limits on the volume of effluent water discharged
has given rise to water purification and recirculation techniques (Gousset 1990,
Jellyman 1995).
Water quality is maintained by an intensive purification process designed to lower the
amounts of suspended solids, organic matter, and nitrogen products (Gousset 1990,
Jellyman 1995). Suspended solids (mainly from feed waste and faeces) are removed
by gravity filters (eg settling tanks, swirl concentrators) or mechanical sieving filters,
and also trapped by the biofilter (Gousset 1990, Jellyman 1995).
Maintenance of an effective biofilter is essential but difficult, and requires regular
monitoring. The system must be capable of coping with short term high nutrient loads
associated with feeding of eels at given times; water quality can fluctuate at these
times, and system designs often include a unit to cope with a temporary accumulation
of waste products in the system. As a result, Gousset (1990) stated that Japanese
(greenhouse) systems are consequently more stable that European systems.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

13

Saltwater Culture
Most eel culture facilities utilise freshwater, however, a saltwater eel farm operated in
the UK (Bristol) for 15 years before closing down in the early 1990s due to economic
reasons. The plant utilised warm saltwater effluent from a nuclear power plant at a
flow of 10 000 20 000 l/min to grow eels to market size in 18 24 months (Jellyman
1995).
In Italy eels (A. anguilla) are reared extensively in brackish coastal lagoons with a
yield of about 1000 tonnes per year (Rossi et al. 1988). Two of these lagoons (Lesina
and Varano) are directly connected to the Adriatic Sea via canals. In both lagoons the
average summer temperature fluctuates around 27C, the winter temperature does not
fall below 8C. The average salinity is 18 in Lesina lagoon, 22 in Varano. In
addition to natural recruitment the ponds are stocked with elvers from both
Mediterranean and European countries. Wild eels take about 6-7 years to reach
maturity, this is shortened to 2-3 years when the eels are reared in intensive culture. It
is suggested that the water temperature, which is higher than in other countries, could
be an important factor affecting the differences in age and growth rates between
Lesina and Varano eels and those of other waters (Rossi and Villani 1980).
In Australia, one eel farm in Cairns starts the weaning process in freshwater, then over
a period of 8 10 days increases salinity to 10 15 ppt through the addition of pool
salt. They have found that with increased salinity the eels feeding behaviour becomes
more vigorous, and after 2 weeks the glass eels will be on a pre-prepared diet
(OSullivan 1999).
In France researchers have studied the effect of temperature and salinity on eel (A.
anguilla) growth. One group found that salinity produced conspicuous effects on
feeding and growth, in favour of a low salinity (2.5 to 3.5%) (Yahyaoui 1986). Elie
and Daguzan (1976) found that rearing of the European eels is possible in a saltwater
systems and that this type of system suppresses fungi disease (saprolegnia).
In Germany, Spittka (1985) carried out experiments rearing eels (A. anguilla) at three
distinct salinities (freshwater, North Sea water, and Baltic Sea water). They found that
physiological stress was found to be lowest in freshwater conditions. In earlier work
Koops and Kuhlmann (1983) conducted eel growth experiments in brackish water
thermal effluents in an experimental fish farm on the northern coast of Germany.
They found that eels could be reared to market size (180 250g) in 1-2 years. The
salinity in their plant was influenced by the salinity of the River Ems at Emden, it

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

14

fluctuated between 5 18 ppt. They concluded that eels were suitable for culture
under brackish water conditions.

Overview of past and present eel aquaculture in New Zealand


4.1

Historical efforts
The first eel farm was established in 1971 and fairly soon after, five more farms
opened in both the North and South Islands, Wattie Industries together with Donaghy
Industries built a farm at Brookby, and in 1973 a further four farms were built. Two
used heated water, one at Meremere (Watties) and one at Pakuranga (Carter
Merchants). The other two were outdoor farms, at Te Kaha (Hourota Industries and
Taiyo Fishing Company) and at Flag Swamp, Dunedin (Wrightson-NMA). These
were all small scale operations generally considered to be pilot farms (generally < 10
tonnes per annum).
Between 1970 and 1974 a significant fishery for glass eels became established on the
Waikato River to supply culture stock for eel farms in New Zealand; a small surplus
catch for export to Japan was also allowed. However with the decline of eel farming
in New Zealand, this fishery also declined (Jellyman 1979).
By late 1975, only the Te Kaha farm remained operational. In 1977 this farm was
taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) for research purposes.
It remained operational until 1982 when it closed as a result of poor economics.
During the late 1970s several eel fattening companies arose, but unfortunately they
could not compete with the wild fishery at that time (Jellyman 1999). Eel fattening
involved capturing juvenile eels (larger than glass eels and elvers), holding them in
tank systems and feeding the eels formulated diets.
The main reasons (as given by Jellyman 1999) that early attempts at eel culture failed
in New Zealand are listed below:

Economy of scale was poor; too few to market size within reasonable time,
and low conversion rates (food to eel production).

High stocking densities with high mortality expectations; often 90% mortality,
and rigorous grading required; very high mortality of juveniles <50g

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

15

High feed costs; inappropriate or non-specific food types for eel stages.

High labour costs

Uncertain supplies of glass eels

Poor water quality

Water temperatures not optimal

Growth not uniform

Adoption of overseas technology, with little adaptation for New Zealand


species.

Market uncertainty

High overheads

Advances in knowledge (particularly in eel husbandry, specialised diets and weaning


techniques) and technology over the last 30 years, ensures that many of the earlier
reasons are no longer valid.
4.2

Current Research and Development


At present, there is renewed interest in eel farming in New Zealand, partly because
northern hemisphere countries are experiencing a severe decline in the recruitment of
their eels (Anguilla anguilla). This decline in recruitment has provided New Zealand
the opportunity to develop our own eel aquaculture and the potential to enter into
lucrative European markets.
NIWA has the largest team of aquaculture specialists and dedicated facilities in New
Zealand making it a major provider of aquaculture research and development.
Scientists at NIWA have a wide range of experience in wild eel research and
aquaculture, their experience is supported by world class facilities such as Bream Bay
Aquaculture Park, NIWAs newest and largest aquaculture facility.
NIWAs current eel aquaculture research is focussed on refining aquaculture
techniques to help make eel farming a viable option in New Zealand; studies include
developing rearing and fattening techniques for juveniles, investigating synthetic and
natural diets, examining methods for parasite and disease control and developing
systems for the seawater culture of glass eels.
The current status of eel aquaculture on the aquaculture commercialisation chain is
presented in table two.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

16

Table 2. Current status of eel aquaculture on the aquaculture commercialisation chain


Score

Process in the commercialization chain

Interested industry partner but limited knowledge base and experience

Preliminary marketing research and economic assessment

Basic biological information-collate existing information or collect baseline

data.
4

4.3

Preliminary hatchery and nursery research underway

Hatchery and nursery bottlenecks identified and under investigation

Semi commercial hatchery and nursery trials to refine culture technology

Preliminary growout research underway

X
X

Growout bottlenecks identified and under investigation

Semi commercial growout trials to refine culture technology

10

Fully commercial

Factors affecting the commercial establishment of eel aquaculture in New


Zealand
The main bottleneck affecting the global eel aquaculture industry is the inability to
produce glass eels artificially in the laboratory. Eel aquaculture is dependent on
obtaining glass eels from the wild fishery. As mentioned previously many European
Countries are experiencing a decline in the recruitment of glass eels, for example
countries on the eastern Baltic Sea receive very few glass eels naturally and are now
dependent on England and France to supply seed stock for their eel farms.
Factors that determine the sex of an eel also need to be addressed. Current research
suggests that the sex of an eel, is determined by the density of eel population (i.e. eels
found in high density lakes are likely to be male, in areas less densely populated the
eels are more likely to be female). Intensive eel aquaculture generally involves
placing the eels in tanks under high densities, which would preferentially produce
males (150 g). Female eels are considerable larger than male eels and may be
preferable for some markets. Chemical manipulation may provide a solution although
it would probably produce strong consumer resistance, the more likely solution will
involve density manipulations.
In New Zealand, the main bottleneck facing eel farming is uncertainty in the trends
and availability of glass eel stocks and legislative barriers involving the capture of
glass eels (discussed further in Section 5). At present the only assured source of

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

17

supply of glass eels is from the Waikato River. Significant quantities of glass eels do
enter other catchments, but their arrival times and quantities are less well known and
predictable. NIWA is currently involved in research on the timing and species
composition of glass eels throughout New Zealand and will be able to provide advice
on alternative sites in the future.
New Zealand currently exports wild eels commercially captured from throughout the
country. Currently, these eels seem to be less acceptable to the European and
Japanese markets, as in those countries the European and the Japanese eels are
favoured. It would be advisable to try and increase the acceptability of the New
Zealand eel in the Japanese and European Markets.
The impact of the large scale eel aquaculture production in China on the international
eel market should be investigated further. Some experts suggest that the Chinese are
over supplying the market, causing a decrease in price.

Planning, regulatory and Treaty obstacles affecting eel


aquaculture in New Zealand
The Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) are
jointly responsible for the management of eels and eel fisheries in New Zealand. A
few other agencies also have statutory responsibilities, which involve eels in various
ways, and they are summarised as follows:
The Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) manages the commercial eel fishery under the
Fisheries Act 1983 - which provides for the management and conservation of fisheries
and fishery resources. Permission for harvesting of glass eels would need to be
granted under Section 64(1)(c) Special Permits of this act. MFish also administers the
Freshwater Fish Farming Regulations 1983 which regulate the requirements for
establishment, stock movements and disease control (Jellyman1995).
The Department of Conservation has an important role in the management of
freshwater fisheries and habitat. They manage for conservation purposes, all land and
other natural and historic resources managed under the Conservation Act, and are to
preserve so far as is practicable all indigenous freshwater fisheries, and protect
recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats. They also advocate the
conservation of natural and historic resources generally. The Minister of Conservation
has primary responsibility for the protection of indigenous freshwater fish, including
their unhindered access in waterways and their habitats. The Department of

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

18

Conservation has no responsibility for the management of the commercial eel fishery
or allocation of eel stocks (Te Waka a Maui me ona Toka Mahi Tuna 1996).
DOC administers national parks, reserves and other conservation land. The National
Parks, Reserves and Conservation Acts provide for the protection of eels (as
indigenous species) on land managed under these Acts. The removal of indigenous
fauna, including eels, for commercial purposes from national parks is restricted and
may only be permitted by the Minister of Conservation if it is provided for in the park
management plan. It is otherwise prohibited in all reserves, unless commercial eel
fishing was provided for when the reserve was established (Te Waka a Maui me ona
Toka Mahi Tuna 1996).
On other lands managed under the Conservation Act, commercial eel fishers are
required to apply for approval to conduct commercial activities as provided for under
Part IIIB in the Conservation Amendment Act 1996. Commercial permit holders can
achieve access to DOC property through the concession process (Te Waka a Maui me
ona Toka Mahi Tuna 1996).
Eels are of cultural and spiritual significance to Maori. Section 4 of the Conservation
Act requires DOC to interpret and administer the Act so as to give effect to the
principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and as such ensure access to the eel resource to
meet the reasonable cultural needs of Maori (Te Waka a Maui me ona Toka Mahi
Tuna 1996).
Section 26ZH of the Conservation Act 1987 states:
"Nothing in this Part of this Act shall affect any Maori fishing rights."
Additionally, in the Maori Fisheries Act 1989, the Crown recognizes the right of iwi to
control the management and use of some local fisheries that have been traditionally
important to Maori. The recommendation of the Waitangi Tribunal in response to the
Ngai Tahu claim, (that the Crown enter into joint management of Lake Ellesmere with
Ngai Tahu, or that the ownership of the lake be vested in Ngai Tahu with the Crown
remaining as trustee), has implications for the existing eel fishery on the lake
(Jellyman 1995).
In Taranaki, Ngati Tama have settled their Treaty of Waitangi Claim with the crown
and one of the provisions under the deed of settlement allows for the taking of
undersized tuna (eel) as part of stocking or re-stocking of waterways and aquaculture

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

19

projects. Other iwi claimants through out New Zealand may choose to follow their
lead, which would allow iwi access to the glass eels for aquaculture purposes.
Regional Councils have responsibilities for land and water management under the
Resource Management Act 1991. Consents to take, use, and discharge water must be
obtained before MFish will consider issuing a fish farming licence (Jellyman 1995).

Legislative barriers to glass eel culture in New Zealand


The main legislative barriers to eel culture in New Zealand are as follows:

Minimum legal size of 220 g for eels.

Moratorium on new fishing permits for the commercial eel fishery.

Firstly it is illegal to harvest glass eels as they are below the minimum size limit.
NIWA are able to collect glass eels under their special permit (NN0203) from the
Ministry of Fisheries, which allows the taking of fish, aquatic life, and seaweed for the
purposes of education and investigative research. Secondly you need a permit to
collect eels over the minimum size limit of 220 g for commercial purposes. There is
currently a moratorium on new permits for the commercial eel fishery in New Zealand
as there were concerns about the sustainability of the eel fishery. You can farm eels
over 220 g but you have to source them from a commercial fisher or a licensed fish
dealer.
For non-commercial use a maximum of 6 eels a day per person is permitted.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

20

Eel aquaculture in Northland


6.1

Previous attempts at eel aquaculture in Northland


Only one attempt has been made to farm eels in Northland, this occurred in 1971,
when the first eel farm in New Zealand was built at Kerikeri. The farm was jointly
owned by William Scollay and Co. and Sumimoto (Japanese company).
Within two years this venture had failed for a variety of reasons including escalation
food costs, depressed export prices, irregular supplies of glass eels, unfamiliarity with
the culture requirements of the New Zealand species and some instances of disease.
The viability of fattening commercially sourced wild eels (220g+) has been assessed
in Northland. Dick Hollenburg a commercial eel fisherman, has trialed a recirculation
system for ongrowing the eels near Ruapuke. His fattening trials were successful, but
persistent disease problems with aeromoniasis caused the venture to close down.
NIWA have scientists with expertise in this area and have now offered him advice on
how to counter disease problems.
During the 1990s there were two eel processing plants north of Auckland, F. Ketelaar
in Wellsford who processed 50 100 t a year and Halma Holdings in Dargaville who
processed between 1 50 t a year. None of these processors are still operating.
A third eel processor Thomas Richard and Co Ltd of Whenuapai had an eel holding
facility in Kamo, which stored wild eels captured in Northland by commercial
fishermen, until there were sufficient eels to be tankered to the Whenuapai processing
plant. This plant is no longer operating.

6.2

Advantages of eel aquaculture in Northland


Northland contains some natural advantages for eel aquaculture, over the rest of New
Zealand, the key advantage being access to warmer ambient water. Sea surface water
temperatures in Northland tend to be higher than for other areas as illustrated in Figure
6, which would be advantageous for saltwater culture of eels.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

21

Summer

Winter

Figure 6: Average sea surface temperatures for February and July (1993-1997).
Generally freshwater temperatures are also higher in Northland, providing the same
advantage to freshwater culture of eels. Eels grow faster in warmer water, and 24C
26C is thought to be the optimum range. There are other methods available to
increase water temperatures and they include using thermal water sources (geothermal,
or heated effluent from industry), enclosing ponds to utilise solar energy (greenhouse
systems), or by heating (and recirculating) water directly via heat pumps or heat
exchangers. However these measures all add to the production costs so if they could
be avoided than that is advantageous.

6.3

In Northland, water temperature would only have to elevated artificially


during the winter months and as a result of this eel culture could be viable
throughout many locations in Northland.

The opportunities for eel aquaculture in Northland


Before eel aquaculture can become established in Northland, issues such as access to
eels need to be dealt with. The Ministry of Fisheries is currently focussing on
introducing QMS to the North Island, and as such, establishing a new eel aquaculture
industry is not currently of a high priority.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

22

In order for Northland to get a head start into the eel industry it would be advisable to
join with a research provider such as NIWA who have access to the eels and are
already carrying out all of the preliminary research applicable to eel aquaculture in
New Zealand. When the issues of access become resolved Northland will be ready to
proceed with eel aquaculture immediately.
Other options would be to form a consortium of interested parties (including iwi) and
lobby the government for a special permit to set up a pilot plant in Northland.
Eel aquaculture has great potential in New Zealand and potential for wealth creation in
Northland, training and further opportunities for Maori are discussed below:

Wealth Creation
Eel aquaculture has potential to be a highly profitable new industry. In 1999 the
worldwide eel aquaculture production was worth US$1.1 billion (approx. 230 000 t).
New Zealand does not currently contribute to the worldwide aquaculture production of
eels, but does have a wild eel fishery and according to New Zealand Seafood industry
statistics, in 2002, 574,211 kg of wild eels were exported from New Zealand, this
equated to approximately 5,788,994 NZ $ (FoB prices).
The wild fishery is limited by the Quota Management System (QMS) which has been
applied to the South Island and the North Island is due to go under QMS in 2004.
These limitations provide further opportunity to expand into eel aquaculture, which
could lead to the generation of even more revenue.
Northland is the ideal location for the establishment of an eel aquaculture industry due
to its warm annual sea surface temperatures (14-21oC), which would promote faster
growth and hence, greater economic return and existing eel research at Bream Bay
Aquaculture Park.
A conceptualised eel farm for Northland could include:
Saltwater culture of shortfin eels using a combination of intensive tank culture for
small glass eels and elvers followed by a grow-out period in external ponds for the
larger and more hardy juveniles would be suitable.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

23

Saltwater culture is recommended, especially for the early stages of eel aquaculture as
there tend to be less disease problems, tank rearing would be recommended for the
glass eels as they are less hardy than juveniles and it would be advisable to be certain
of water quality parameters, feeding rates, rates of weaning at this critical stage.
Once the eels grow into elvers or juveniles they can be graded and the larger eels can
be placed into external ponds, the water could be fresh, saline or even brackish
depending on the site. The salinity would not be of importance as eels are able to
osmoregulate (exist in both salt and freshwater conditions), the main priority would be
water quality.
Shortfin eels would be the recommended species as they are most like the Japanese
eel, and would be more readily accepted into the Japanese markets.
The conceptualised eel farm production cycle would take 18-24 months and would
aim to produce 50 100 t per cycle. The farm would employ two staff. NIWA staff
are currently producing a business plan for this type of venture and figures will be
provided when they become available.
Other employment opportunities created by the development of eel aquaculture in
Northland include:

Glass eel industry. Throughout Europe and the United States collecting glass
eels for supply to aquaculture facilities is a business in itself.

Builders, plumbers and other tradesmen will be required to get the aquaculture
facilities up and running (plumbing tanks etc).

Further employment opportunities should arise in the processing plants, to


deal with the increased volumes of eels. An existing eel processing plant
operates in Whenuapai, and it currently processes all of the eels captured in
Northland from the wild eel fishery.

Employment and training


Bream Bay Aquaculture Park is the largest and most advanced aquaculture
development centre in New Zealand where scientists work on site with industry to
provide the support, expertise and training required to commercialise new aquaculture
species. This ensures that the research maintains commercial focus and momentum

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

24

and delivers innovation that is directly relevant to the commercial goals. The results
are immediately captured and commercialised by industry and the science capacity of
the industry partners is greatly increased. NIWA also offers training courses in
specific areas of aquaculture.

Opportunities for Maori


Maori could become key players in the eel aquaculture industry. Eels are a taonga
(treasured) species for Maori and as such, create great interest amongst iwi groups.
Some iwi are obtaining access to glass eel seed stock directly as a result of Treaty of
Waitangi Claims (Such as Ngati Tama from Taranaki), which immediately gives them
a head start into the eel industry. While other interested parties are still trying to gain
access to the eels, Ngati Tama could be setting up a commercial venture.
Other iwi (such as Tainui and Ngai Tahu) have developed fishing companies and are
doing extremely well with the return of fishing quota under the Treaty of Waitangi
Fisheries Commission (Te Ohu Kai Moana). These groups are always looking to
diversify into other areas and could be interested in investing in the eel industry.
The North Island wild eel fishery is due to go under the QMS system in 2004, as part
of this Maori will become eligible for 20% of the wild eel fishery quota. With some
other commercial species in New Zealand, quota holders can trade quota for access to
seed stock, this may become a possibility for eels in the future.
Given the cultural significance of eels and the aspirations of tangata whenua to have
kaitiakitanga over their resources, Maori should be kept fully informed of any
proposed developments (Jellyman 1995).

Selection of a potential location for eel aquaculture in Northland


Site selection is one of the keys to successful commercial cultivation of eels. Sites
should be chosen to provide optimum environmental conditions in terms of water
quality, temperature, and salinity to suit the species being farmed and the method of
cultivation.
The physical location of an eel aquaculture site is onshore (land based), currently there
are no offshore (water based) eel aquaculture sites around the world. For intensive

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

25

tank-based eel aquaculture, site selection criteria are less restrictive, the main
requirement being proximity to high quality water (either fresh or saline).
For pond-based eel aquaculture, topography is important, it is advantageous for the
site to have a slight gradient as this will permit cost effective water supply and
discharge by gravity. Consideration of a sites topography should also include its
proximity to the shoreline or water source and exposure.
For pond-based eel aquaculture, the best site is one with constant water supply, and
which is not susceptible to flooding. Bore water is suitable as long as it is free from
pathogens and chemical residues and has a pH of 7.0 to 8.0. Highly acidic water is not
acceptable.
The key requirements for eel aquaculture are listed below:

Access to starting stock (glass eels).

Access to high quality water.

Aquaculture site needs to be flat and low lying

close to water

close to a city

have road access

have electricity nearby

have access to adequate freshwater supply

Access to market

The most suitable site in Northland for eel aquaculture at the present time would be
Bream Bay Aquaculture Park, there would be other sites suitable within Northland but
more detailed site specific surveys would be needed before any other sites could be
recommended with any certainty.
Bream Bay Aquaculture Facility (3552 S 17428 E)
NIWAs aquaculture facility at Bream Bay would be the ideal choice of location for
eel aquaculture in Northland. The site is already established and fits most of the
criteria mentioned above. The only criteria lacking, is access to glass eels, this could
easily be remedied by transporting them to Bream Bay from the Waikato River.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

26

At Bream Bay the glass eels can be reared intensively under controlled tank conditions
in high quality seawater, followed by grow out in external ponds. The ponds are not
currently constructed, but land is available at this stage for pond development.
Alternatively the juveniles could be transferred to on-growing locations elsewhere in
Northland.

Figure 7: Bream Bay Aquaculture Park

Summary of key points

Three species of eel found in New Zealand.

Eel culture or farming involves catching juvenile eels when they enter
freshwater and on growing them to a marketable size.

Many factors need to be considered when collecting eels for culture including
harvesting, fishing gear, sorting and holding the catch, transport, quarantine,
acclimation to hatchery conditions, water quality and dietary requirements.

Asia and Europe are the largest markets for eel products.

Eel aquaculture worth US$1.1 billion in 1999.

Three main eel culture methods are pond culture, accelerated temperature
facilities and recirculating systems.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

27

Temperature is important for eel growth, 25-26C optimal for New Zealand
eels.

Saltwater culture is possible and is/was conducted in UK, Italy, Australia,


France and Germany.

An advantage of saltwater culture is that fungal diseases are suppressed.

Historical eel culture efforts in New Zealand were unsuccessful due to a


number of reasons.

Current research in New Zealand investigating saltwater culture of glass eels


and eel fattening.

Ministry of Fisheries and the Department of Conservation are jointly


responsible for the management of eels and eel fisheries in New Zealand.

Current barriers to commercial eel culture in New Zealand are legislative.

High potential for eel aquaculture in Northland.

The most suitable site within Northland at this stage would be Bream Bay
Aquaculture Park for glass eel culture, as it is an established site with access
to high quality water.

A number of other sites within Northland may be suitable for the development
of eel on-growing facilities.

Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland

28

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