Whitebait under threat

The humble whitebait , and with it the whitebait fritter, is under threat.

On the eve of whitebait season, research from the University of Canterbury has been released showing the native fish's spawning grounds are being destroyed.

Scientists have discovered whitebait favour specific sites for spawning, in conditions that are increasingly difficult to find.

Researcher Dr Mike Hickford said the fish lay their eggs among bank vegetation in the tidal areas of streams.

"The [whitebait] spawn where grasses clump together and form a dense root mat, where there is almost 100 percent humidity. It's not uncommon for different generations of fish to choose the same clump of grass for egg laying."

It can take years for optimum conditions to develop and many factors threaten existing habitat, including flooding, grazing livestock, bank disturbance and deforestation.

The Green Party called today for farmers, councils and the Government to protect whitebait habitat from the impacts of livestock and industry.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said it was time for the few irresponsible farmers to start considering more than just their bottom line.

"The West Coast, famous for whitebait, has seen massive dairying conversions in the last few years. Too frequently, this has been to the detriment of the local environment, as some farmers choose to put profit ahead of all else."

He said the main dairy cooperative on the West Coast, Westland Milk Products, had not joined the Clean Streams Accord.

"The whitebait tradition is dear to most New Zealanders, as is the delicious whitebait fritter, but this tradition is increasingly more difficult to secure, as we experienced during last year's meagre season."

The whitebait season starts tomorrow for most of the country, except the West Coast and the Chatham Islands.

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