Eel Fishing in the Waikato

May 2017

A lifetime of commercial eel fishing in lakes and rivers around Waikato

Mike Holmes has been fishing for eels for nearly 40 years. His work has seen big changes especially with the introduction of the eel quota system in the Waikato in 2004. Today he combines his fishing with his role as chairman for the North Island quota holders on the Eel Enhancement Company. Mike’s a champion of the quota system and sustainable fishing practice and works to advocate on behalf of his fellow quota holders to assure their livelihood and the health of the eel stocks are maintained.

Nearly 40 years ago Mike was driving tour coaches and looking for a way out. A chat with a friend on the West Coast and a half-hour lesson in a Greymouth pub got him started in eeling. In those days there was no quota system and the eel processing factories bought dead eels.

Eel stocks were introduced into the quota management system (QMS) between 2000 (South Island) and 2004 (North Island), and commercial catch limits set for these fish stocks. The catch limits were set lower than previous years’ average catches and the industry underwent significant rationalisation during this time, which led to a reduction in fishing and processing capability. 

Today Mike owns an 8% longfin eel and 6% shortfin eel share in the Area LFE 21 quota. He fishes predominantly in this Waikato area that extends from the Bombay Hills down towards Taupo. 

Combined with his role as chairman of the Eel Enhancement Company – a company made up of North Island eel quota holders, he’s making a living at something he loves. Mike works across the area LFE 21. He owns a couple of boats, a small maneuverable 4 metre boat for fishing the Waikato River and a larger 5.3 metre McClay for his work on lakes like Lake Karāpiro. 

He tends to work 10 days on at a time, resetting nets after he hauls them in – though the Spring glut, weather and the unpredictability of river and lake levels due to the chain of mighty Power River dams makes for an interesting work week. He says it’s easier to predict the weather than what the power company is going to do in regards to water levels in the area. 

Ask Mike about the changes he’s seen and he cites the quota system as the big one and a change for the better. He refers to the years prior as the “bad old days” when everyone went hell for leather taking as much eel as they could while battling to beat each other to the big catch.

Mike said the eel populations are in a far better state than when he started and assuring the sustainability of the stock is vital, “We need to catch fish economically – we need to be conservative in how we fish”. 

Mike chairs the Eel Enhancement Company, a company made up of the North Island quota holders. The group is heavily involved in advocacy on behalf of the eels and the fishermen. Right now their key focus is the reset of the TAC (Total Allowable Catch). MPI resets the quota tonnages every few years.  The EEC is awaiting statistics and scientific reports to enter into the work to reset the catch limits. Contrary to public perception, their core goal is assuring eel stock numbers as without a good healthy population their livelihood would be “down the gurgler”. Mike reckons it’s probably good to keep it where it is in most places with just some small increases in some areas, in particular Taranaki.

A good example is the size limits. With the introduction of the quota system there was maximum size limit per eel to assure that the large female eels that were nearing the end of their life – a vital time when these mother eels head out to the open ocean ‘somewhere near Tonga’ to spawn, were released back into the water. Anything under 220 grams was also by law to be released. However Mike and the other quota holders felt this was too small and set their own limits to assure population health – that of 300 grams.

What they do is set up release pipes on their nets so instead of the government recommended 25 millimetre wide PVC pipe, the fishers use 31mm or bigger. The pipes don’t always sort out the young ones and usually Mike has to sort through the catch to weed out the ones that weren’t smart enough to figure out the escape pipe and of course the ubiquitous koi carp that end up in their nets.

Other advocay work has been around the crack willows. The trees have been listed by Biosecurity as an unwanted organism yet Mike says this is crazy. DOC is ripping them out, but Mike says, "If we don't have willows, we won't have an eel fishery."

He believes the fact eels were thriving long before the willows arrived is no longer relevant, "Before we had willows, we had a vastly different countryside. Most of the Waikato basin was swamps and lakes." Mike says the trees provide important cover for the eels, they clear the water of excess nutrients and stabilise the river banks - not to mention they flower at a time of year when bees have little alternative food – making them important to beekeepers as well.

Mike also believes there is a need for regional councils to better manage water flow. Right now he says they’re fixated on flood control when the focus should be on flow and fish stocks. “The economic consequences of a drought far outweigh a 2-3 day flooding event”.

Other big changes Mike has ridden out are the shifts in the market. Once all about dead frozen eels and smoked eel, they now aim to provide live eels for live exports for better returns. Providing live eels means working to keep them healthy and alive until he can get a tanker in to pick them up and transport them to the factory. Presently their key market for live eels is in the United States and Asia – and contrary to recent reports the fish is seen as a delicacy, it is not being made into fancy cat food. “The frames and left overs from processing are used in cat food”.

Mike still freezes a few when the market is slow, such as the present downturn. He credits the downturn to the argy bargey between the Ukraine and Russia slowing exports to this lucrative market. And in the asian market, new biosecurity measures in Taiwan are also undermining numbers.

That said, like the river levels, Mike will still be out on his boat, riding it all out.