The Kai Man

For as long as he can remember, "kai man" Karl Russell has gathered food from the Opihi River.

"I have eight brothers and four sisters. My father was a labourer and money only went so far in those days so we basically supplemented our food with the traditional kai like eels and whitebait from the Opihi River."

As a young boy, Karl fondly recalls gathering eels after flooding.

“Because we didn’t have stock banks at those times, when the river flooded, the farms used to flood so all the eels- thousands of them- would go out into the paddocks to feed on the drowned worms.

“As soon as the floods started dropping, we used to be sent down there with sacks to collect the eels trapped in the paddocks.”

Karl says he gained a lot of his knowledge from being there at the Opihi River as a child.

“You weren’t just collecting kai, the importance was in learning about how a river lives and breathes.”
One of the most important lessons Karl learnt from his father, which he is adamant everyone must understand, is to never take more food than you needed from the river.

Karl’s father was key to teaching him how to understand the seasons of the river.

“I remember in June-July our dad would spend a lot of time looking at the hills. We were only kids and were always thinking what the hell are you looking at the hills for?

“He was looking at how much snow was falling on the ranges and therefore how much water was going to come.

“If there was a really good snowfall, it was going to be really good white-baiting.”

One of the most important lessons Karl learnt from his father, which he is adamant everyone must understand, is to never take more food than you needed from the river.

“If you ain’t gonna eat it, you better not kill it. End of story. I’m pretty hard on that.”

“You grow up with old people telling you 'that's enough boy. Remember next week when you might need to come back and get some more’. That’s all part of the whakapapa of the Opihi. It was a food basket for our people.”

In the late 1970s, commercial eeling began in the Opihi River, with companies catching eels by the tonnage. By the mid-1980s it became clear to the local iwi that things were taking a turn for the worse.

“We'd have a tangi at the marae, and send 10 to 20 guys out to collect four sacks of eels and they'd be out for hours and come back in with half a dozen eels. The eels just weren’t there and what was there was small.”

In the 1990s, following the treaty settlement, an eel management plan was put in place which included trigger points used to indicate when to reduce quota.

“That worked for a while but there was still no real improvement to the system.”

So the rūnanga went for a mātaitai –protection order- on the Opihi and Temuka rivers. This banned all commercial fishing on these rivers.

“It’s mind-boggling the improvement that made,” Karl says.

But there’s still a long way to go to restore the Opihi and its tributaries to their former glory, Karl says.

“Nature, left to itself, can heal pretty quick, but it would require some drastic measures.”

“Is there a half way line we could meet to achieve that? I don’t believe there is until we, as human beings, look at the environment for what it is and leave it alone. We have the answer but are we prepared to go down that course?”

Whitebait and eels have been in abundance in the past but years of over fishing made their numbers decline in Opihi

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