Protecting the whitebait fishery in New Zealand


Whitebait are a New Zealand delicacy. Every year hundreds of people try their hand at catching the tasty translucent morsels that enter our coastal waterways. On the market, a kilogram of whitebait may fetch N.Z.$90.

Whitebait patties are how most whitebait that are caught end up. Their popularity is enduring by virtue of the relative ease and speed of making them. They were the entree at the A.P.E.C. 1999 State Banquet held for the then United States President Bill Clinton and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

But whitebait are in danger of extinction. Their immense popularity, damage to their habitat and (this is debatable)over fishing of the delicacy, which have five subspecies in New Zealand – climbing galaxias, common galaxias, banded kokopu, shortjaw kokopu and giant kokopu have brought about severe challenges for a popular recreational past time. This has brought with it, talk of possibly closing the fishery for a period of one or two years during which there is a complete ban on whitebaiting, with the idea being that whitebait would be able to regain some of their population.

Whitebait habitat damage, and in particular their spawning grounds is the most serious threat they face. A spawning ground might be only a couple standard glass houses in area, but in that area tens of thousands of whitebait will be depositing their eggs, and the destruction of that one spawning ground might be the difference between whether or not that particular river/stream/creek/estuary/lagoon has a meaningful whitebait population the following year.

I and my father whitebait each year. We have no problems with compliance and follow local regulations specific to the Canterbury area and fisheries. We do it because we enjoy eating whitebait and are not there to make a profit from doing so, which some are – our purpose has always been to put food on the table, which is what I believe all hunting and fishing should be about. We do not leave any litter or other debris behind that might enter their habitat and cause adverse effects.

Pollutants entering the habitat – cigarette butts, plastics, and so forth – are another threat that needs to be considered. This is a general common pollution issue that should be dealt with separately by way of enforcement action by local council rangers. Fines and – most appropriately – making the offender participate in a rubbish clean up would be a good way of getting the message across.

No quotas exist for whitebaiters. It is debatable whether there needs to be quotas. One will immediately ask, if quotas exist, how are they going to be enforced and the only answer from hard experience is by ground enforcement on the spot. There would need to be many rangers enforcing the quotas and there is a possibility that they would – like anyone involved in law enforcement – possibly have to deal with hostile people. The quota size itself would also be up for debate. Sometimes several kilogrammes of whitebait might be caught each day, and then there might be none or little for several days or even weeks – nearly all we caught this year was taken in the final week of the season.

Whitebaiters are permitted to whitebait from dawn to dusk. They are allowed nets and gobi’s (nylon fencing on poles)that extend from the net to the shore. The combined net/gobi arrangement cannot take up more than 1/3 of a channel width and must be manned at all times. A whitebait net cannot be less than 20 metres from another whitebait net. The season start time varies from one region to the next – the Canterbury one started in mid-August and ended at sunset 30 November.

I don’t want any children I might eventually have or anyone else who has children to be denied the opportunity to show them an easy and fun – albeit sometimes patience testing – mode of fishing. So, let us enjoy our whitebait, but apply a bit of common sense and protect the habitats, don’t take more than you want to use and respect the other whitebaiters who have come to try their luck.

Common sense really.

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