By Eruera Rerekura – | @erurerekura


Protecting the eel fishery for future generations was one of the main talking points at the second National Māori Tuna Conference in Whanganui.


And with the new legislation over the governance of the Whanganui River through the Te Awa Tupua Act in place, it was timely for Whanganui to start the conversation about a new framework to look after tuna and piharau – a local Whanganui delicacy.


The chair of Te Wai Māori Trust, Ken Mair, says there is a genealogical link between humans and eels that connect us all to the environment.


“Ko te mana o te tuna, ko te mana o te whakapapa, ko te oranga o te tuna, ko te oranga o ngā mokopuna me ngā uri o te awa tupua.”


Preserving and maintaining eel stocks are not only a concern for Whanganui iwi, it’s an ongoing issue for most iwi who live alongside rivers where waterways are their natural habitat.


Bill Kerrison is a member of the Kokopu Trust and has devoted his life to the eels of the Rangitaiki River and other Bay of Plenty rivers.


He’s committed over 35 years promoting, protecting, and enhancing the survival of tuna on the Rangitaiki River, as well as supporting tuna kaitiaki. He has worked tirelessly to develop and implement trap and transfer programmes.


“Consequently I got really involved since 1998. When I found all the dead eels on this power station, it was so dramatic that I went to see the guys working at the power station and they admitted that they had been burying them by the hundreds without anybody knowing.”


Tuna and piharau are regarded by Whanganui iwi as a delicacy and what they usually feed to guests on the marae.


Ben Potaka, who heads the Whanganui Catchment Strategy, is well known on the river as one of the experts of tuna and piharau.


Being born and raised on the awa he credits his passion and knowledge as a responsibility passed down to him by his kaumātua.


He told Te Karere that one of Whanganui’s traditions is at risk.


“We’re just unable to catch it like we used to. Once upon a time Whanganui was renowned for putting tuna on the table for manuhiri, putting piharau on the table.”


He said every year the natural home of the tuna is becoming scarce.


“We’ve found the biggest loss to our tuna is the habitat – destruction of habitat, they just don’t have the habitat to survive these days. So that’s a high priority for us,” Mr Potaka said.


Bill Kerrison, who hails from the Rangitaiki River, is also thinking about the future.


“For me it’s my next two generations. If we take that away, what’s our next two generations going to have?”


The onus is on the next generation to keep the eel fishery alive, Mr Potaka said, and they must be ready to have that knowledge handed on to them.


“Fishing is not sexy anymore – going out and catching tuna, it’s not something everybody wants to do; they have so much other stuff to get into.”


Ben has recently worked alongside Te Kura o Kokohuia in Whanganui on a wetlands and tuna project.