2013 – Eel bypass for downstream migration on the Waikato River

Alan Collins and Michelle Archer

The Waikato River is the longest river in New Zealand. Mighty River Power operates nine dams on the river with a combined net head of 335 m. The reservoirs have limited storage capacity so that the Waikato Hydro System is effectively a continuous run of the river scheme, providing constant generation for the New Zealand electricity grid. The river is also the habitat of the New Zealand Longfin and Shortfin Eel. Before the dams were constructed, eels naturally migrated as small elvers and lived as far upstream as the Arapuni gorge, where a waterfall prevented them from travelling further upstream. The commissioning of the Karapiro dam in 1947 reduced the natural habitat of the eels. In recent years, the eel population has been declining through a variety of anthropogenic factors and protective status is being called for. An elver catch and release program commenced at Karapiro Dam in 1992. This transferred elvers as far upstream as Lake Ohakuri and significantly increased the available habitat for the elvers to grow into adult eels. Spawning adults migrate downstream and back out to sea and as a result most of these eels are killed by turbines at the hydro stations. While consent conditions don’t stipulate it, Mighty River Power is committed to being an environmentally responsible custodian of the Waikato River and is dedicated in efforts to preserve the eel fishery. Mighty River Power recognises the importance of eel to local iwi; particularly highlighted by the emphasis on eel in the Waikato River Independent Scoping Study. The Karapiro eel bypass project, started in 2010, sought to investigate and research means to assist downstream eel migration. Research was gathered into eel searching patterns, timing of eel migration, durability in high velocities and other survival factors. This information was used to design, construct, and test a prototype downstream eel bypass at the Karapiro dam, something that had not been built on a dam this size before. In the 2013 migration season, three eels safely used the bypass. Plans are in place to improve the performance of the bypass in the coming seasons. Mighty River Power wishes to share the lessons learnt from this project with other dam operators for the conservation of this important species.

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