Paradise for eels? Getting to know the secrets of NZ's new icon

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As New Zealand's "Mr Eel", Niwa's Dr Don Jellyman has heard every tall tale. And some of them may be true.

There is the classic one about the unlucky haymaker. Jellyman was told the yarn again by a commercial eeler friend.

"It was hot mid-afternoon and the guy stripped off starkers, went to lay in the stream. An eel came along and grabbed hold of his 'old fella' – gave it the spinning treatment."

Yeah, that old urban legend, Jellyman replied. "But he said no. He had visited the guy in hospital himself."

Ouch. So maybe it did happen. Certainly eels do scavenge animal carcasses by coiling in circles to rip off lumps.

Another is the reports of eel balls—claims of writhing masses of up to 100 eels tumbling together down streams at night.

"I've never seen it, but I've heard of duck shooters on the Waikato that have seen it. And there's one reference to it in the scientific literature—in Canada," says Jellyman.

Plausibly it could have something to do with eel migration—behaviour to synchronise their departure, or even mimic spawning behaviour, as the eels prepare for their 2000km trek to their distant ocean breeding grounds. But until someone gets a photograph, it remains another tantalising mystery of a still fairly mysterious creature.

Eels have a changing place in the heart and imagination of New Zealanders. While not quite yet ranking with kiwi and tuatara on the front of tourist t-shirts, they are becoming an iconic creature in being clearly the most impressive native species living in our lakes and rivers. Jellyman—at 70, still a researcher at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) in Christchurch—says it is amazing how much attitudes have changed if you think back to when he was a Pakeha kid growing up in Blenheim.

Then the natural king of the water was the trout. Eels had a bounty on their tails literally.

"The local fish and game council used to pay us. The prevailing wisdom was they didn't coexist well with trout. Anglers were encouraged to kill them. So we would go out on a Friday night. And for small boys, tuppence an eel tail was not a bad little earner."

Read the rest of this story about Dr Don Jellyman, republished from a Stuff.co.nz feature by John McCrone on 6 May 2017.