In the darkness of night, driven by an instinct millions of years old, countless short-finned eels slither out of south-west rivers and into the ocean at this time each year. EVERARD HIMMELREICH joined those who make a living from the mass migration.
THEY are slithery, nocturnal creatures and not a big part of the diet of many white Australians.
And with the arrival of Easter, many of them will be driven by their overriding urge to procreate to make a desperate dash across any sandbars still blocking south-west rivers to reach the Southern Ocean.
From there, they will swim on to the Coral Sea to spawn in one of nature’s most amazing displays.
They are short-finned eels and they are gathering at night in south-west rivers for the “sea run,” — their migration to the ocean from which only their offspring return.
In the Coral Sea near Vanuatu, male and female eels dive down to great depths where the water pressure forces out their eggs and sperm.
They die in the effort, but the eggs are fertilised by the clouds of sperm in the water and develop into young eels, which return with the ocean currents back to the south-west river system from which their parents had come.
The young eels again present an awesome display of their species’ ability to overcome obstacles when countless thousands of them squirm their way up the Hopkins Falls near Wangoom about October to reach the upsteam river stretches where they grow into adults.
Grassmere commercial eel fisherman Tane Quarrell is among the handful of people privileged to witness the nocturnal sea runs.
He said the eel exodus lasted about three months, starting around February, and “fully kicks off” about Easter.
If the river mouths aren’t opened by water levels lifted by rain or high seas, the eels often don’t wait and slither across the sand during the night to embark upon their epic journey.
Mr Quarrell said countless eels made that sprint last week when king tides gave them a wet and slippery passage across the sand to the sea.
He said the eels spent time at night in the river mouths to acclimatise to the salty water before going out into the ocean.
Those nightly visits make early autumn a peak harvest time.
He has caught up to a 1000 kilograms, or more than 1000 eels, in one night from a band of rivers that extend from the Merri at Warrnambool to the Surry near Portland.
Tane’s father, Graham Quarrell, who has been a commercial eel fisherman in the south-west for about 30 years, said eel numbers in the south-west were recovering after dropping significantly during the drought over the past decade. Graham said he harvested up to two tonnes of eel a night before the drought.
Tane said unsuccessful dashes by the eels across blocked river mouths did occur and one night he threw up to 250 eels back into a river after they got stuck in dry sand.
Tane and his brother Jyran net about 30 tonnes of eels a year, which go to both domestic and export markets.
Many of the buyers are Chinese, whose cuisine includes many popular eel dishes.
Eels, or kooyang as they were called in the Gunditjmara family of languages, were a staple part of the diet of early Aborigines in the region.
They built a large eel aquaculture system in the Lake Condah area west of Mount Eccles that utilised the area’s lava flow geology.
But in the modern era, most Australians have not tasted eel and the industry is a niche one.
Tane said the night harvesting was solitary, exposed to the weather and sometimes dangerous, but he loved it.
Danger came in the form of the other predators also after the eels caught in the tubular fyke nets that the Quarrells lay in rivers.
Tane often works in waders in shallow parts of estuaries and has had to fend off large leopard seals also after his catch.
On one occasion, a large shark cruised past after a flood in the Merri allowed it to come up river.
Apart from animal predators, the Quarrells also battle against poachers who steal the eels captured in their nets.
Another problem has been people who believed the nets were placed illegally and nets had been stolen and damaged, Tane said.
When Tane is oversupplied with eels, he stores the excess in south-west lakes such as Lake Gnarpurt, but declining water levels there have meant he has lost a significant part of his catch this year.