Tuna - maturation and identifying sex

The sex of tuna is not determined genetically, as in some other organisms.

Tuna start their lives in fresh water capable of becoming either male or female - the sex they finally become is dependent on the environment and circumstances.

As an eel grows, the sex organs (testes in males, ovaries in females) can be seen as thin lines of tissue running along the backbone inside the body cavity. The ovaries of large female eels contain millions of eggs: for example, a 1 m long longfin female would have about 4 to 5 million eggs, while a 1.5 m female would have about 25 million. In both long- and shortfins, female eels are much larger than males.

Generally, eels growing in high densities (i.e. with many other eels present) tend to become males, whereas eels growing in areas where there are few other eels present tend to become females. This is illustrated in eel farming/aquaculture, where tuna are grown at high densities and almost all of which become males. Alternatively, eels transplanted into a lake where there are very few resident eels, will tend to become females. To complicate things further, there is also evidence that eels with fast growth rates early in their life will tend to become males.

Large eels, particularly longfin, play an important role in determining the population structure of eels, including species composition, sex ratios and size distribution. Without this ecological relationship, a higher density of smaller eels can induce sexually immature juveniles to become male. This may have implications not only for interrelated species, but also on the number of female eels contributing to the spawning population.

Identifying sex

In all species of freshwater eels, the females grow to a much larger size than males. Thus, any eel above the maximum size to which males grow must be a female. However, anything smaller than this could be either male or female.

  1. In shortfins, males do not usually grow larger than 550 mm (about 350 g), so any eel larger than that is a female.
  2. In longfins, males grow to a maximum of 750 mm (about 1.25 kg), so larger eels are females.

Before their sex organs develop into either male or female tissue, they are termed "undifferentiated" – at this stage the gonad is very immature and it's not obvious which sex an eel belongs to. The gonads become larger as the eel grows and by the time both sexes migrate for spawning, they are quite obvious (although sometimes the ovaries are mistaken as fat reserves).

When identifying whether eels are males or females, the key feature to look for is whether the gonad has a distinct lobed or scalloped appearance, a little like a row of beads - if it does, the eel is male. If the gonad or is more like a ribbon of tissue of the same width, resembling a net curtain, the eel is female.

In an immature eel, the gonads can be rather difficult to find as they are only about 1 mm or less in width. The smallest eels identified in New Zealand as male were 27 cm for a shortfin and 30 cm a for longfin. The smallest females identified were 33 cm for a shortfin and 37 cm for a longfin. In practice, it is usually difficult to confidently identify the sex of most eels until they are at least 35 cm for shortfins, and about 40 cm for longfins.

References and further reading

Beentjes, M.P., Chisnall, B.L. (1998). Size, age, and species composition of commercial eel catches from market sampling, 1996–1997. NIWA Technical Report 29. National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, Wellington.

Beullens, K., Eding, E.H., Gilson, P., Ollevier, F., Komen, J., Richter, C.J.J. (1997). Gonadal differentiation, intersexuality and sex ratios of European eel (Anguilla anguilla L.) maintained in captivity. Aquaculture 153: 135-150.

Davey, A.J.H., Jellyman, D.J. (2005). Sex determination in freshwater eels and management options for manipulation of sex. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 15: 37-52. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p1579160t48v6038/

McCleave, J.D., Jellyman, D.J. (2004). Male dominance in the New Zealand longfin eel population of a New Zealand river: probable causes and implications for management. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 24: 490-505.

Todd, P. (1974). Studies on the Reproductive Biology of New Zealand Freshwater Eels. Unpublished PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. 328 p.

Todd, P.R. (1981). Morphometric changes, gonad histology, and fecundity estimates in migrating New Zealand freshwater eels (Anguilla spp.). New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 15: 155-170. http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/journals/nzjm/1981/018/

Migrant shortfin male (top) and female (bottom). Note the enlarged eye, dark fins, silver belly, and pointed heads. In both long- and shortfins, female eels are much larger than the males. Credit: Jacques Boubée
Typical stages of tuna gonad development, from an immature stage (stage 1), to that in tuna heke (stage 5 for males and stage 8 for females). Credit: Beentjes & Chisnall (1998)
Example of a shortfin female eel from Lake Ōmāpere. The female gonad (or ovaries) runs along the backbone of the eel and looks a bit like a folded net curtain. Credit: Tracey Dalton
Example of a shortfin male gonad from Lake Ōmāpere. The lobed male gonad (or testes) runs along the backbone of the eel and looks a bit like a string of beads. Credit: Jacques Boubeé
A step-by-step guide to help determine the sex of tuna. Credit: NIWA