In search of elusive eels

In search of elusive eels

Erin Maessen spent the summer researching attitudes to native eels as part of the Masters of Science in Society programme. Now she shares some of the highs and lows of the journey.

I didn’t intend to research eels, but as the trimester had already started, choosing a project was becoming urgent. I had written a little about eels earlier in the year, and my supervisor thought I could do something more. I worried that three months of research would label me irreversibly as ‘eel girl’, but figured that was better than having no topic at all. One more project, I told myself, then I’ll be done with eels and I’ll move on.

Eels are shy. They hide away unnoticed at the edge of streams. Yet if you ask, just about everyone has a story about an eel encounter. Eels hold a contrasting position in New Zealand, because while their numbers dwindle and their conservation status becomes more worrying, commercial fishers are freezing them for export overseas. It was this strange assortment of attitudes that I set out to explore.

A week in, I realised the summer trimester only lasts 11 weeks. That meant just 10 weeks left to somehow produce 20,000 words, for a project I didn’t yet understand. I found myself wishing I’d done just about anything else with my summer, preferably involving more beach time and less brainpower.

Part of my research was interviewing people who interact with eels—for example an eel scientist, and a chef from a restaurant serving eel. After a few false starts I had a list of names, and sent out emails asking to set up interviews.

By this stage, Christmas was two weeks away. No one had time to answer emails, let alone be interviewed.

While I waited for replies, I searched for eels around Wellington. They turned up in all sorts of weird places, including an eel-themed slide in the Mount Victoria adventure playground. I found eel traps on display in Te Papa, eel stories in picture books at the library, and real live eels in Kaiwharawhara stream. In between, I spent long days searching 113 years of old newspaper records for stories about eels.

Eventually, I set up one interview over Skype. The rest would have to wait till January. I counted the weeks remaining, and hoped things would be smoother after Christmas.

By January, the deadline felt a whole lot closer. On the plus side, I had finally finished my newspaper search, and managed to set up more interviews. One hot day, I travelled to Mount Bruce wildlife sanctuary, to see the eels being fed and interview one of the staff. Watching huge eels the size of my leg eating mince from the end of a spoon was a highlight of the entire process.

I had talked to people about eels, read news stories where anglers gloated about the ‘monster eels’ they had caught, and seen eels swimming peacefully in streams. I sat down and wrote, 1-2,000 words a day for two weeks, until I had described it all.

Editing the monstrosity I had produced was exponentially harder than writing it in the first place. I spent endless days hunched over a desk, grumbling as people enjoyed the sunshine in Oriental bay. I wondered, when this was over, if I would ever want to look at eels again.

Finally, to my great relief, the deadline arrived, and I said goodbye to my eel epic.

About a month later, an email arrived, with two fat letters of feedback. I realised I was already planning where the search for eels would take me next.

Erin Maessen has just completed a Master of Science in Society, and is a writer and eel-advocate.

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