The Eel Pond


Kia hiwa ra,  kia hiwa ra, moe araara ki te matahi tuna.

Be watchful or you’ll sleep and miss the eels.

The Mahitahi River is an important "pathway of eels", which is reflected in the naming of the Aratuna Bridge, on Bridge Street in Whakatū. The River and the Eel Pond, that now sits in the Queens Gardens, are of historic importance to Māori as a treasured source of food and traditional fishing grounds for Nelson's first residents.


Pond in Queens Gardens, Nelson, 1890, [photographed in 1890 by Frederick James Halse] Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-010324-G

Polynesian Legends of the Origins of Eels

In one tradition Tuna came from Puna-kauariki, a spring, in the highest heavens.  The families in the spring were Para (frostfish), Ngōiro (conger eel), Tuna (freshwater eel) and Tūere (hagfish or blind eel).  The waters of the heavens dried up, and this group made their way down to Papatūānuku (the earth).  Tuna remained in fresh water, but Para, Ngōiro and Tūere all went to the sea.

Eel. NZ Longfin eel Anguilla dieffenbachii. Wild wind on inaturalist

NZ Longfin eel Anguilla dieffenbachii. Wild wind on inaturalist

Maui and Tuna
In another story Tunaroa, the father of all eels, molested Hina (Sina in Samoan), wife or eldest sister of Maui, as she bathed in a pool.  Maui attacked Tunaroa, cutting his body to bits.  Tunaroa’s tail landed in the sea and became the conger eel, his head landed in swamps to become freshwater eels, and smaller pieces turned into lamprey and hagfish.  Tuna are a recurring motif in traditional carvings at marae throughout Aotearoa, and in waiata and whakatauaki. 

Eel weir

Eel weir on Hokio Stream. Adkin, George Leslie, 1888-1964 :Photographs of New Zealand geology, geography, and the Maori history of Horowhenua. Ref: PA1-q-002-082. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22517212

Tuna (eels), especially longfin eels, are treasured by Māori as food, but they also have important cultural significance.  Their presence or absence can indicate ecosystem health.  Māori have over 100 names for tuna depending on subtle differences, and they have developed a range of harvesting methods:  hinaki (eel pots), pā tuna (eel weirs), koumu (eel trenches), korapa (hand netting), toi (bobbing without hooks) and ponds (haroto tuna) where eels could be handfed.  Pā tuna were often used in evidence in the Native Land Court to demonstrate the extent of a person’s mana (authority) in an area.

Tuna as Staple Food

Eels, the main source of fat and oil in the Māori diet, were readily available throughout New Zealand, and easily caught.  Tuna could be stored alive in specially woven containers, they could be eaten fresh, or they could be preserved by splitting, boning, and smoking or drying in the sun.  When dried they could be kept for months in kelp or bark bags;  sometimes whale oil was poured over the eels to exclude air and aid preservation.

Eel drying

Bigwood, Kenneth Valentine, 1920-1992. Eeling. Tourist and Publicity. Ref: 1/2-040047-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22688859


Waikārapi (Vernon Lagoons) in Marlborough was a 17th century engineering feat accomplished by Rangitāne;  nearly 20 kilometres of channels and canals were constructed to harvest fish, eels and birds.  Buttresses were left projecting into the channels to fix hīnaki and nets.

Eel pot

Photograph of a wicker fishing pot (hinaki). McDonald, James Ingram, 1865-1935 :Photographs. Ref: PA1-q-257-71-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23121571

In close proximity to the ‘trap’ buttresses, were sand pits into which the traps and nets were emptied.  The old method of killing tuna (eels) was by sprinkling fine dry earth grit or sand.  The eel soon died under this treatment, and the bruising caused by knocking the fish on the head with a wooden club was avoided.  The reason given for this was that in those big fish drives they were taking and preparing food to last them through the scarcity of winter, and the bruised part of the fish would soon putrify and become useless for winter stock.  The killing by a blow on the head was all right when the fish was to be eaten right away

Tuna in History

There are accounts of huge quantities of dried eels (20,000 at one feast) in the past.  In Nelson’s history Māori guides Kehu and Pikiwati of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri kept Thomas Brunner alive on their epic expedition to the West Coast (1846-1848) by harvesting traditional foods, including tuna.  On their return journey food was scarce but when they reached Kawatiri famine turned to feast with a huge catch of eels.  On 1 March 1848 Brunner wrote that they had fifty-four eels, averaging about three pounds each “… making a heavy load for three of us to carry. I was obliged to take the heaviest, to keep good humour amongst them, and to be enabled to laugh at them when they complained of being tired”.  Four miles up the river “… Ekehu found a good eel station”, and despite the bounty they were carrying “… nothing could induce him to pass it”.

Paramena Haereiti, Ngāti Tama chief at Wainui in Mohua (Golden Bay), recalled travelling through Whakatū in 1837 where he said nobody was living;  the only feature he commented on was an Eel Pond.

Tuna Now

European settlement, drainage, farming, pollution, and engineering projects have had damaging effects on tuna habitats.  Today tangata whenua have customary harvest rights in their rohe for special events, and they hold 20% of commercial fishing rights.  Many iwi have chosen not to fish their commercial quota in the hope of revitalising the tuna populations.

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