New Zealand longfin eel

New Zealand longfin eel
Māori: tuna
New Zealand longfin eel
at the base of a waterfall near Piha beach, Waitakere Ranges, Auckland.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Anguilliformes
Family: Anguillidae
Genus: Anguilla
Species: A. dieffenbachii
Binomial name
Anguilla dieffenbachii
J. E. Gray, 1842

The New Zealand Longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii) is one of three freshwater eels found in New Zealand.[1] The other two species of eel are the Shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) which is also found in south-eastern Australia and the recently arrived Australian Longfin eel (Anguilla reinhardtii).[1][2][3]

The easiest method for identification of the New Zealand Longfin eel is by the length of its fins: the dorsal (top) fin extends further forward towards the head than the anal (bottom) fin. In the Shortfin Eel the fins are of similar lengths.[4]


General Biology

Like other members of the Anguillidae family Longfin Eels have a rather unusual migration system where they grow and mature into fertile adults in freshwater water systems then migrate to the sea to breed; a catadromous breeding system.[5]
This breeding system also ensures that their mating system is randomised (panmictic population).[4][6]

The New Zealand Longfin eel is a very long lived fish with records of females reaching 106 years old and weighing up to 24 kg.[7][8] Longfin Eels have the slowest growth rate of any eel species studied.[9]

Male and female Longfin Eels differ in length and in the age at which they migrate with males averaging 666 mm but reaching up to 735 mm in length with an average age of 23 years (12 – 35 years).[4][7] Female Longfin Eels are considerably larger with an average length of 1156 mm, but can range from 737 to 1560 mm. These females range in age from 20 to 60 years before migrating.[7] The average age of migration varies between the North and South Islands of New Zealand with the North Island eels having younger migration ages and thus faster generation times.[2]

Life stages

Longfin eel seen in a river at night in the Tararua Ranges

Longfin eels life cycle like other species of Angullidae eels is rather complex consisting of four distinct life stages which remained a mystery for many decades and still is not fully understood.[4][7][10][11]

When migrating Longfin eels reach their breeding and spawning grounds (which is thought to be located in the tropics of the pacific ocean somewhere near the Fijian basin[10][12]) their eggs (of which each female eel produces between 1 and 20 million[4][13]) are fertilized in an unknown manner but is thought to occur in deep tropical water.[4] The eggs then float to the surface hatching into very flat leaf-like larvae (leptocephalus larvae) they then drift along large oceanic currents back to New Zealand.[4][10][14] This drifting is thought to take up to 15 months.[4] There have been no recorded captures of either the eggs or larvae of Longfin eels.[10] Upon arrival back in New Zealand the larvae undergo a transformation (metamorphosis) into glass eels which resemble small adult eels but are transparent.[4] These glass eels occupy estuaries during which time they develop colouration[4] and become elvers, resembling small adult Longfin eels.[4][11] The elvers migrate upstream where they develop into adults.[4][11][15][16]


The recruitment of glass eels into the freshwater river networks in New Zealand is a very variable process which is thought to be affected by the El Niño and La Niña Southern Oscillations.[12] This is a major reason for the failure of Longfin eels aquaculture farms in the 1970’s.[1][4]

Sex determination

The determination of the sex of Longfin eels is a difficult process as their sexual organs are not determined until they are over 450 mm in length.[6] The only method to determine Longfin eels sex is through internal examination and only becomes easy to distinguish when the eels mature and migrate.[4][6]


Longfin eels have an omnivorous diet and are opportunistic feeders.[17] Their diet as small eels largely consists of insect larvae.[4][17] When eels become larger, they also feed on small fish including galaxiids and trout.[4][17]

Habitat and Distribution

The New Zealand Longfin eel is an endemic species to New Zealand with a very wide distribution through New Zealand’s freshwater waterways including the Chatham Islands.[2][4][18]

Longfin eels are often found great distances inland (up to 361 km) along fresh waterways and in high country lakes which are connected to the sea.[2][4][8] Aiding in Longfin eels inland distribution is its climbing ability when it is in its elver (juvenile) life stage and is under 12 cm in length.[9][16] These migration events frequently coincide with increased temperate, water flow and low light conditions.[4][9][19] At this size the elvers can migrate up to 130 km inland over a summer and has been observed climbing near vertical surfaces up to 43 m tall.[4] This feat is accomplished through a combination of surface tension (with the water) and friction.[16]

The in-stream distribution varies depending on the life stage of the Longfin eel. As elvers (juveniles) they prefer shallow water (under 0.5 m deep) with coarse substratum and faster than average stream flow (such as that found in stream riffle).[2][3] Adult Longfin eels tend to be found next to or under large pieces of debris and undercut river banks.[3][4]

Significance for Māori

The Longfin eel is an important resource for Māori because it provided an important food (protein) source.[9] Reflecting this significance for Māori they had extensive knowledge of Longfin eel’s migratory routes.[4][9][13]

Longfin eel fishing

The commercial fishing of Longfin eels started to gain momentum in the 1960’s and had a 2000 tonne yearly catch by the 1970’s.[4][9] But the fishery went into decline in the early 1980’s and in the 2000-2001 fishing season only 1079 tonnes were taken.[20] The commercial Longfin eel fishing was included into the Quota Management System (QMS) in 2000 for the South Island and the North Island in 2004. This set limits as to the minimum and maximum size (220 grams and 4 kg) and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC).[2][9] As of 2007 the TAC has not been reached in any fishing season since the implementation of the QMS.[2] In recognition of the significance of Longfin eels to Māori they have a 20 percent allocation of fishery stocks.[21] The capture and export of glass eels in New Zealand has been prohibited.[2]

Longfin eel aquaculture

There have been a number of attempts at growing Longfin eels in an aquaculture operation. The first were in the 1970’s. These did not remain operational for long with the last farm closing in 1982.[1] The most common reasons for these failures were economic (the high cost of production vs low price for the eels), variable recruitment of glass eels and the high mortality (death) rates in the farms.[1] In the early 2000’s there has been renewed interest in the aquaculture of Longfin eels due to the increasing knowledge of Longfins biology and the diminishing stocks of European eels (Anguilla Anguilla) but no farms have been built.[1][5][6][9][13][22][23]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Watene, E. (2003). Potential for Commercial Eel Aquaculture in Northland. Auckland: National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Jellyman, D. J. (2007). Status of New Zealand fresh-water eel stocks and management initiatives. ICES J. Mar. Sci., fsm073. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsm073
  3. ^ a b c Glova, G. J., Jellyman, D. J., & Bonnett, M. L. (1998). Factors associated with the distribution and habitat of eels (Anguilla spp.) in three New Zealand lowland streams. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 32(2), 255 - 269.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w McDowall, R. M. (1990). New Zealand freshwater fishes: a natural history and guide (Rev. ed.). Auckland: Heinemann-Reed.
  5. ^ a b Doole, G. J. (2005). Optimal management of the New Zealand longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii). Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 49(4), 395-411. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8489.2005.00310.x
  6. ^ a b c d Davey, A., & Jellyman, D. (2005). Sex Determination in Freshwater Eels and Management Options for Manipulation of Sex. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 15(1), 37-52. doi: 10.1007/s11160-005-7431-x
  7. ^ a b c d Todd, P. R. (1980). Size and age of migrating New Zealand freshwater eels (Anguilla spp.). New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 14(3), 283 - 293.
  8. ^ a b Jellyman, D. J. (1995a). Longevity of longfinned eels Anguilla dieffenbachii in a New Zealand high country lake. Ecology of Freshwater Fish, 4(3), 106-112. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0633.1995.tb00123.x
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Jellyman, D. J. (2009). Forty years on – the impact of commercial fishing on stocks of New Zealand freshwater eels (Anguilla spp.). Paper presented at the Eels at the edge: science, status, and conservation concerns. Proceedings of the 2003 International Eel symposium, Bethesda, Md.
  10. ^ a b c d Jellyman, D., & Tsukamoto, K. (2010). Vertical migrations may control maturation in migrating female Anguilla dieffenbachii. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 404, 241-247. doi: 10.3354/meps08468
  11. ^ a b c Ryan, P. (2009). 'Eels - Life cycle and breeding grounds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand Retrieved 29 August, 2010, from
  12. ^ a b Jellyman, D. (2006). Tagging along when longfins go spawning. Water & Atmosphere, 14(1), 24 - 25.
  13. ^ a b c Potangaroa, J. (2010). Tuna Kuwharuwhau - The Longfin Eel.
  14. ^ Chisnall, B. L., Jellyman, D. J., Bonnett, M. L., & Sykes, J. R. (2002). Spatial and temporal variability in length of glass eels (Anguilla spp.) in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 36(1), 89 - 104.
  15. ^ Boubée, J., Jellyman, D., & Sinclair, C. (2008). Eel protection measures within the Manapouri hydro-electric power scheme, South Island, New Zealand. Hydrobiologia, 609(1), 71-82. doi: 10.1007/s10750-008-9400-6
  16. ^ a b c Jellyman, D. J. (1977). Summer upstream migration of juvenile freshwater eels in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 11(1), 61 - 71.
  17. ^ a b c Jellyman, D. J. (1995b). Diet of longfinned eels, Anguilla dieffenbachii, in Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 30(3), 365 - 369.
  18. ^ Jellyman, D. J., & Coates, G. D. (1976). The Farming of freshwater eels in New Zealand. Paper presented at the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council 17th Session, Symposium on the Development and Utilisation of Inland Fishery Resources.
  19. ^ August, S., & Hicks, B. (2008). Water temperature and upstream migration of glass eels in New Zealand: implications of climate change. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 81(2), 195-205. doi: 10.1007/s10641-007-9191-z
  20. ^ Beentjes, M. P., Boubée, J. A. T., Jellyman, D. J., & Graynoth, E. (2005). Non-fishing mortality of freshwater eels (Anguilla spp.). In M. o. Fisheries (Ed.), New Zealand Fisheries Assessment Report 2005/34 (pp. 38).
  21. ^ . Setting of Sustainability and Other Management Controls for Stocks to be Introduced into the QMS on 1 October 2004 - North Island Shortfin and Longfin Eels (SFS, LFE). (2004).
  22. ^ Rodríguez, A., Gisbert, E., Rodríguez, G., & Castelló-Orvay, F. (2005). Histopathological observations in European glass eels (Anguilla anguilla) reared under different diets and salinities. Aquaculture, 244(1-4), 203-214. doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.aquaculture.2004.09.039
  23. ^ . Opportunities for Customary and Commercial Freshwater Aquaculture. (2009) (pp. 1 - 60): Te Wai Maori.
  • Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2006). "Anguilla dieffenbachii" in FishBase. February 2006 version.
  • Tony Ayling & Geoffrey Cox, Collins Guide to the Sea Fishes of New Zealand, (William Collins Publishers Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand 1982) ISBN 0-00-216987-8

Long Finned Eel (Tuna)

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