Giant Eel Comes to Parliament - New Zealand Threatened Species Delivers Petition
United States’ artist and educator, Stephanie Bowman, began the taniwha-sized social art project four years ago when she learned that New Zealand’s longfin eel, an endemic and iconic species of freshwater fish, was allowed to be commercially fished in spite of it being a species threatened with extinction.
“I first visited New Zealand as a tourist with my son, and believed it to be the ‘clean, green, 100% pure’ country that it promotes itself to be. Then, I looked past the blue waters and bucolic green hills and noticed signs warning folks not to swim for their own safety and I began asking questions about the state of New Zealand’s famous fresh water and was shocked at what I learned about the degraded state of its ecosystems.” Stephanie Bowman said.
“When I asked people who worked for the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Fisheries (now the re-named Ministry of Primary Industries), Velvet & Elvis: A Mother & Son Story of New Zealand’s Longfin Eel and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research about the fact that a unique and threatened species could still be commercially fished for export
“they often became alarmed, closing office doors and speaking in hushed voices about risking their jobs if they were to publica lly speak out about the plight of the tuna (the Maori word for eel).”
After learning of the situation the artist and Biology teacher felt compelled to write and illustrate a children’s story, in order to educate New Zealand children about the longfin and raise awareness for the declining state of New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems as a whole. Next, she instigated the making of the giant fabric Velvet-the-eel that will arrive at New Zealand’s Parliament on Tuesday.
The tapestry not only depicts a velvety longfin eel, but also showcases the great diversity of wildlife found in New Zealand’s water. School groups, museums, and individuals all around the country, from Kaitaia to Invercargill, added panels to the tapestry as it travelled around New Zealand during the past two years. It is estimated that over 3000 individuals have so far helped to create the more than 75 panels that make up the quilt. Each panel is about two metres long; the size of the largest female longfins when they, some a century old, finally reach maturity. A full account of tapestry participants can be found in the Save the Eels Blog .
On March 19th Stephanie and concerned citizens will arrive in Wellington to carry the huge, snakelike fish to the steps of Parliament to present the eel’s petition. The petition calls for a moratorium to be placed on the commercial fishing of the longfin eel. The petition was begun by Forest & Bird, Greenpeace, Manaaki Tuna, and ECO and to date well over 5000 signatures have been added to it.
University of Massey scientist Dr. Mike Joy, explains the importance of the petition, saying “a glitch in New Zealand's conservation laws still allows large numbers of eels to be harvested from the wild every year. People think that New Zealand’s Quota Management System prevents unsustainable fishing practises but this is really quite far from the truth - no longfin eel quota has ever even come close to being met – how can management like this have any impact on controlling harvest levels?", adding, "with all the additional threats eels are facing, in my opinion, extinction is inevitable if they continue to be commercially fished at current levels.
“The March 19th event will kick off at 12:30 p.m from the Cenotaph in Lambton Quay . The eel will wind its way up the sinewy, eel-like driveway from Lambton Quay to Parliament House forecourt. Speakers there include project creator Stephanie Bowman, ecologist, Dr. Mike Joy, environmental scientist Caleb Royal from Te Wananga o Raukawa, and ex-eeler Sam Ludden. Eugenie Sage and other M.P.s are expected to say a few words as well. Local band Bella Cajon will play. At 1:30 pm the giant eel will be carried back to Te Papa where it has been on display for the past month.
On March 18, at 9:30 pm there will be a closing blessing for the tuna tapestry at Te Papa in the Bush City kiosk on Level 2. Anyone wishing to attend should e-mail Melanie Dash: MelanieD@tepapa.govt.nz
After the 19th, Velvet’s Travelling Tuna Tapestry will be looking for someone to sail her to Tonga and back, a journey to honour the longfin’s epic journey which it incredibly makes twice in its life. Finally, the tapestry will be on permanent, public display at the new National Wetland Centre near Waikato. Any groups who made a panel may then visit the Centre to see and/or reclaim their piece of this gigantic social art project.
Stephanie Bowman: He Wahine Tuna
Stephanie was raised in The United States in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley by a father who took her fishing by canoe in the secret tributaries of the Shenandoah River. He taught her and her sisters kaitiakitanga. He didn't know that word, but he instilled in his daughters the idea that one should leave a place in better shape than it was in when one arrived there. The American Eel swam in those waters of Stephanie’s childhood backyard and she is embarrassed to admit that she (like many Kiwis and their longfin) knew nothing then about her native eels' life and their long heke to and from the Sargasso Sea. The American Eel is no longer thriving in the Shenandoah mostly due to prior commercial fishing and habitat loss.
Stephanie likes to joke that she began to travel to and from New Zealand for a Kiwi man, and ended up falling in love with eels instead. On her second visit to Aotearoa in 2010, she learned of the presence of the iconic, endemic, mysterious, and once-common eel in New Zealand's freshwaters. She was shocked to learn that it was also a species threatened with extinction (just like the cherished great spotted kiwi) yet still commercially fished and exported to give other countries products ranging from sushi to “environmentally friendly” dog food. “When I can go to an restaurant in Tucson or Tokyo and ignorantly order an animal that is going extinct, or even unknowingly feed it to my dog, I think it is time to take action and make others aware; even if some commercial eelers in New Zealand think I should shut up and mind my own business. What I eat is my business”, Stephanie insists. Stephanie got so involved with the eels that she quit her job teaching biology and spent some of the next year in NZ doing research for her children's book, Velvet & Elvis: A Mother and Son Story of New Zealand’s Longfin Eel. During that research, Stephanie found that informed Kiwis were afraid to talk about the reality of the longfin's future, fearing that they might lose their jobs with DOC, The Ministry of Fisheries (now the Ministry of Primary Industries), and NIWA. Stephanie recalls that even the Minister of the Ministry of Fisheries Phil Heatley, “when asked to meet me in February of 2011, stated that he was out of town but was in fact hiding in his Whangarei office."
While working on the book, to save money, Stephanie lived in a caravan in the Sonoran desert. “My son, Zane, slept in a cabinet!,” she recalls of that frugal time. Stephanie recently funded the publishing of the book by Papawai Press through a Kickstarter campaign in which over 80 individuals donated money to get the book in print for this March. To help spread the word about the longfin Stephanie also spent three months as Te Tuna Wahine (The Eel Woman) travelling all over NZ in early 2011 sharing the story of Velvet and Elvis in schools, museums, and parks. She was joined by a homemade longfin sock puppet and a growing, Travelling Tuna Tapestry that, thanks to many Kiwi hands, is now about 150 metres long and ready to help deliver the tuna petition to Parliament on March 19.
Stephanie credits te tuna with big changes in her career and personal life. Her efforts towards saving the longfin eel actually led her to her marriage with fellow-conservationist, Paul Hamilton, and to her current soul-fulfilling work as President of the Board of Directors of The Biodiversity Group, an international non-profit organization based in the States that focuses on conserving species that are usually overlooked. Additionally, the tuna project led Stephanie to instigate a similar tapestry project called Sewing Spots Together which was created for Defenders of Wildlife, who needed a social art project to raise awareness for the plight of the endangered jaguar.
Stephanie states, “My hope was and is that the eel book and tapestry will inspire curiosity and compassion for these misunderstood and often-abused creatures and help New Zealander's recognize and conserve the treasure that is swimming through their backyards before it too is lost forever. I hope that in my lifetime I will see the mauri returned to the wai of New Zealand.”