Four generations of the one Tasmanian family have been harvesting the state’s largest predatory native freshwater fish for more than 50 years.
Known as short-finned eels, these wild and slimy fish can weigh between 400 grams and 10 kilograms and lurk in swamps, farm dams and waterways.
Less than one per cent are open to commercial fishing and the Finlaysons from Tasmanian Eel Exporters cover 70 per cent of the industry.
At this time of year, the crew of three is flat out, criss-crossing the state, checking nets for adult eels.
He said that equated to about 400 eels caught in one dam.
With the migration of the eels only having just begun, many would be caught over the next few months.
“I expect that to continue to around two-tonne in the next two weeks,” Mr Finlayson said.
As the eels approach maturity, they begin their migration from lakes and river systems, towards the warm waters of the Coral Sea to spawn.
This is where they often hit a few snags.
The eel are either trapped in nets or are chopped up and regurgitated inside the hydro-electric dam at Trevallyn on the outskirts of Launceston in the state’s north-east.
Avoiding turbine sushi
Power company Hydro Tasmania has already installed a fish ladder to help baby eel, known as elver, climb the dam wall and reach the South Esk River.
Now it wants to make it easier for the adult eel to complete their migration towards the ocean and avoid the dams turbines.
Hydro’s senior aquatic scientist David Ikedife said the eel bypass is attempting to mimic natural stream channels.
“We’re taking a proportion of our environmental flow and passing it through a core hole that will be drilled through the dam,” Mr Ikedife said.
“It’s a high-level pass, so it’s just below the surface, which means that we don’t have issues with eels undergoing pressure fluctuations as they pass down.”
Not all migrating eels will use the bypass, but he hopes it will still improve their rates of survival.
“If we see a reduction of eel mortality in the Tail Race that would be a milestone achievement as well.”
Drop in eel catch
The area above the dam wall, where commercial eel fishermen currently set their nets, will be off limits when the eel bypass is built.
Hydro said Tasmanian Eel Exporters can still commercially fish more than 8,000 square kilometres in the dams catchment area.
However Brad Finlayson said it is the area above the dam, wall where eel congregate, that is particularly lucrative for their operation.
“If we can only catch a tonne a year in other locations around the lake, then it’s not sustainable, the industry is literally dead.”
Mr Finlayson said rule changes around their licence conditions set by Tasmania’s Inland Fisheries Service, have also caused problems.
“You don’t know when you’re going set a foot wrong or whether you’re going to get prosecuted,” he said.
“It doesn’t give us any confidence, no confidence in our business in what we do and we do well.”
Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment said the number of licence conditions have been reduced.
It said conditions such as activity notification, closed waters and inspection of equipment within set timeframes are to ensure sustainability within the fishery.
International eel markets off the boil
Six months ago, Tasmanian Eel Exporters closed its fish conditioning facility in southern Tasmania.
The plant enabled the business to double the eel’s weight within just a few months and export live eel during the winter months, to some of their key markets like South Korea.
That trade has now virtually dried up and sales into South Korea this year have dropped by 90 per cent.
Now the company is relying on selling the eel into Australia’s major cities.
Mr Finlayson plans to leave the family operation early next year and is worried how the family operation will stay afloat.
“For all that to disappear, it’s heartbreaking.”