Taranaki iwi 'devastated' after thousands of eels killed by ammonia spill

updated By Jessica Tyson

Members of the Taranaki iwi Ngāti Ruanui are devastated following the death of thousands of eels caused by an ammonia spill.

Ngāti Ruanui Kaiarataki and Māori Party candidate Debbie Ngarewa-Packer (Ngāti Ruanui) says the spill was caused by a burst valve, belonging to the meat company Silver Fern Farms.

“They admitted that a valve burst at the site which created the ammonia leak and that it was unable to be contained.

“In the clean up ammonia was released into the stormwater and washed into Tawhiti stream and has subsequently progressed,” Ngarewa Packer says.

“The message that was relayed to us is that it was a complete kill.

“There have been thousands of eels validates our concern that our whole catchment has been affected,” Ngarewa-Packer continues.

According to research by the Taranaki Regional Council, longfin eels are an endemic species and have a conservation rating of ‘at risk, declining’. 

The eels are generally long-lived and breed only once before they die. Growth rates are highly variable, with female longfin eels commonly migrating to their spawning grounds at ages ranging from 27−61 years.

“We're devastated because our kaitiaki, our tuna are there and have been there for generations to look after us.

“Tuna are our kaitiaki, they let us know if water has issues, the fact they died tells us the extent of the pollution."

The spill occurred on Wednesday. But Ngarewa-Packer says the public was not informed about the severity until Friday.

In a statement to Te Ao, Silver Fern Farms said, “We are deeply disappointed this has happened given our commitment to our environment and the stream restoration work we had carried out on the Tawhiti stream."

They say their focus is on the clean-up and to ensure no more harm is caused.

“We take our responsibility around our environment and our engagement with the local community seriously and have met with Ngāti Ruanui to work with them to put this right.”

Ngarewa-Packer said she met with management from Silver Fern Farms head office over the weekend.

“I think he has experience with tāngata whenua. We were able to get some information from that hui that we hadn't otherwise had. They were told without any doubt, how devastated we are with this and most importantly how we expect to hold them to account.”

She still thinks processes need to be improved.

“When you look at it, the whistleblowers on this kaupapa, the only people in the last five days who have taken this to task and alerted that our wai is not safe is us, is us as tāngata whenua.

“No one else has publicly advised our communities that actually there's been a spill of this magnitude.”

A review is underway of Silver Fern Farms (not iwi) of what should happen in future including a stronger relationship with tangata whenua.

“Then we will be discussing how we return the mauri of the awa, how we repopulate a population of tuna that we’d spent the last 20 years making sure that this particular stream was repopulated and looked after,” Ngarewa-Packer says.

A rāhui is also in place at Tawhiti and Tangahoe until further notice.

NB: Since our broadcast of this news item on our Monday 24 February news bulletin, this article has been updated at Debbie Ngarewa-Parkers' request.