Coast whitebaiters report poor catch in worst season for 15 years

"Terrible" was the word Lorraine Wallis considered best summed up the 2012 whitebait season on the West Coast that ended yesterday.

Ms Wallis runs the Haast Beach Holiday Park, where serious whitebaiters set up for the three-month season.

Although she knew one whitebaiter had caught 150kg to 200kg during the season, she believed many others would be heading home today with just 10kg to 12kg, a poor return for three months' fishing.

"On the whole, the feeling is that it has been a terrible whitebait season."

Wanaka whitebaiter Don Kindley said it was probably his worst season in 15 years of fishing.

"And all the real long-term whitebaiters who frequent the Haast Beach camp all say the same."

He believed catches were generally just 10% of normal.

Mr Kindley said the number of theories to explain the poor catches would be equivalent to the number of whitebaiters on the coast. He believed it was a seasonal issue rather than a long-term one.

Ms Wallis said she had heard many "unscientific" theories for the poor catches which ranged from lack of rain and low river flows at the time fish were spawning, to cold weather during the season and rough sea conditions. She believed the problem was a lack of whitebait returning to rivers from the sea rather than whitebaiters being put off fishing by the bad weather.

"The guys who stay here are dedicated whitebaiters and they were out every day. They were certainly there, but it was just the whitebait weren't in the river."

Department of Conservation ranger in Greymouth Brad Edwards said it had been a bad season right up the West Coast mainly because of high rainfall and river levels in October, in the middle of the season.

Mr Edwards said whitebait would continue to return to rivers over coming weeks.

Low returns had again led to calls this year for whitebaiting to be stopped, to protect the fishery.

Mr Edwards said the fishery had generally declined for about 100 years, probably with land-use changes, but bad seasons were often followed by a good season.

"People make observations about the fishery being in complete death throes and then we have a couple of great seasons, so it's hard to read."

Although the West Coast season ended yesterday, the Otago and Southland season continues until November 30.

Coastal Otago freshwater ranger Pete Ravenscroft yesterday said Otago's season was good compared with the past two.

mark.price@odt.co.nz