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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3 (June 1, 1934.)

Tuna, The Eel — His Life History

page 22

Tuna, The Eel
His Life History.

Twenty thousand dried eels, several tons of sea fish, principally young sharks, large quantities of hogs, nineteen calabashes of shark oil, six albatrosses, and baskets of potatoes, sweet and common, without number.” Such, according to Mr. Colenso, was the feast provided for the people of Tauranga by Te Waharoa, father of the famous William Thompson.

The first item on the menu is interesting not only by reason of the enormous number of fish, but also as a reminder of the very large part played by the tuna, or freshwater eel, in the dietary of the old-time Maori. By many writers it has been stressed that the existence of a swamp or lake, which provided a constant supply of what was to the Maori one of his chief delicacies, constituted in a large measure his standard of the desirability of a locality. It was this fact, for instance, which chiefly influenced Te Whatanui in his selection of Whare-puhanga, sometimes called Te Rau-matangi (near Levin) as his place of abode. In fixing the boundaries of the Muauapoko territory from Tena-mairangi to Tauataruru, he was careful to exclude the whole of the Hokio stream, thus assuring to himself the absolute control of the eels of Lake Horowhenua.

The wily Maori had many ways of catching the slippery tuna, such as by “bobbing,” spearing or groping for them by hand in the mud (hooks were never used), but the principal hauls were invariably made during the breeding season, when, according to Mr. R. McDonald, of Levin (in “Te Hekenga”), they were caught not in dozens but in thousands, in skilfully constructed pa-tunas.

To understand how these pa-tunas were worked, it is necessary to enquire into the breeding habits of Anguilla (the scientific term for the eel family). So great was the interest in this matter, in the Old World as elsewhere, that, as is pointed out by Mr. J. R. Norman (assistant keeper, Dept. of Zoology, British Museum), every zoologist from Aristotle downwards appears to have propounded his view as to when and where the freshwater eels breed. Aristotle himself argued that they must be derived “from the bowels of the earth,” presumably by spontaneous generation, a view which, centuries later, held favour with the great Isaak Walton. Pliny, asserting (erroneously) that eels have no sex, suggests that, having lived their day, they rub themselves against rocks, and the pieces scraped off their bodies come to life. Still more extraordinary, however, was the theory of a Mr. Cairncross, a zoologist of some standing, who stated in 1862 that “the progenitor of the silver eel is a small beetle!”

Until a few decades ago, even, the matter remained a mystery, as it is to most New Zealand fishermen at the present time, though it was assumed that breeding took place in estuarine waters, a theory which recent discoveries have shown to be entirely incorrect. In recent years the whole matter has been cleared up by the patient labours of the eminent Danish biologist, Dr. Johannes Schmidt, whose discoveries, according to Mr. Norman, have provided one of the most important biological events of the century. All current works dealing with the Anguilla family contain copious references to Dr. Schmidt's reports.

For many years, forms of fish life, known as leptocephali, have been recognised in the sea. These leptocephali possess perfectly transparent ribbonlike bodies of a considerable size, and flattened from side to side. The head, as indicated by the name, is exceptionally small, and they vary in length from three to four inches. The first reliable guide to the breeding habits of the eel came in 1891, when Grassi, the Sicilian naturalist, by examining specimens from the stomach of the sunfish, discovered that leptocephali, though unlike their parents as it is possible to imagine, were in fact the laval forms of the eel family.

Dr. Schmidt carried the matter through to completion, and the gist of his discoveries is that, so far as European and American eels are concerned, eels leave their feeding grounds (their coats changing from the familiar yellow to silver) at the age of from eight to twelve years, and migrate to a certain area in the Western Atlantic, between Bermuda and the Leeward Islands, where they spawn at a depth of approximately 400 metres below the surface, in water of a fairly high temperature, and of a certain salinity. To reach this place, some eels make a journey of from three to four thousand miles!

After spawning, the parent eels die, and their young, who do not feed in the sea, make the return journey over the wide waste of water to the identical creeks and ponds, it is believed, whence their parents issued.

So far as New Zealand eels are concerned, Dr. Schmidt believes that all species (Anguilla Aucklandii and Anguilla Australis are the most common, but there are several others) breed on the New Caledonian submarine ridge, off New Caledonia. Mr. W. J. Phillipps, F.R.G.S., the well-known zoologist of the Dominion Museum, informs me that Dr. Schmidt has not yet definitely proved his point, but that all known facts tend to this conclusion.

The ancient Maori well knew the exact time when the eels commenced their migration, and some stirring passages occur in many old Ms.S. concerning the excitement prevailing among the natives at that time, when Tuna met his fate en masse! The pa-tunas were simple traps, consisting of fences across the stream, with hinakis (eel baskets) fitted into the openings. The eels caught were frequently kept alive for a long time in huge hinakis, in streams and lakes, and fed on cooked potatoes, to ensure a regular supply of fresh fish. Incidentally, to rob one of these hinakis, or “poha,” was considered one of the most heinous crimes in the Maori calendar. In fact, it is recorded that Te Whatanui, a chief whose generosity has become a legend, had quite made up his mind to hang an eel thief named Wirahana Tarewa, who had abstracted eels from the chief's hinaki at Te Raumatangi, and it was only a substantial payment of money and long pleadings which enabled the Muauapoko tribe to buy off the erring Wirihana.

Our New Zealand eels often attain a great weight. I have myself assisted in the landing of a monster weighing thirty pounds, taken from the Arnold River, in Westland, but evidently there are much heavier eels, as in 1859 Dr. A. S. Thomson, in his “Story of New Zealand,” mentions eels of fifty pounds, while A. A. Sherrin in “Fishes of New Zealand,” claims that the largest species of New Zealand eel, the kokopu, attains a weight of seventy pounds.

In order to reach the sea, the eel has frequently to pass over a wide stretch of dry land. Thus, Mr. McDonald mentions that to his knowledge eels in the Pakauhokio Lake annually cross a grassed ridge fifty yards wide and forty to fifty feet high. Sir H. Maxwell, in “Freshwater Fishes,” explains very clearly how tuna manages to become, page 23 to a certain extent, amphibious. The eel does not have one gill cover and one gill opening, but several gill slits behind the pectoral fin. Within each gill slit is a gill cavity, and, further, each gill slit can be closed by a membrane stretched on delicate bones. Thus the eel is able to retain a considerable amount of moisture in the gill cavities, which keep the gill filaments afloat.

Tuna's powers of climbing are prodigious. Captain Mair mentions that he has seen young eels “no bigger than knitting needles” climbing a fall of thirty-six feet, at the spot where the Ohura River joins the Wanganui.

No less interesting than tuna's life history is his place as a leading character in Maori mythology. It is a remarkable fact, which Mr. Elsdon Best has taken particular care to point out, that the Old Testament version of the “fall of man” has its parallel in Maori lore, except that the eel replaces the serpent. (There are no snakes in New Zealand, though outwardly the eel is a good imitation of one.) Indeed, for nil his succulent fiesh, the eel appears to have been regarded by the ancient Maori as an incorrigible mischief maker. A widespread Polynesian myth explains how the coconut grew from the head of a particularly objectionable eel, who met his death most tragically at the hands of the enraged natives.

The very first of the clan, even, the great Tuna himself, was chopped into nine pieces by the redoubtable Maui, in revenge for a deadly insult to Maui's wife, Hina. At the same time, it is well to remember that the well-tried dictum of “love your enemies” appears also to have found favour in the eyes of the Maori, as is evidenced by the menu of Te Waharoa's feast! The number of tunas who ended by being grilled before a hot fire, with stout fern stalks thrust through them from end to end, or who were steamed, wrapped in leaves of the raureka, in Maori ovens, must be legion!

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