Resolution needed on whitebaiting

West Coast whitebaiters — at least some of them — claim whitebaiting has a bit of the wild west about it.

There are rules and there are sheriffs, in the form of Department of Conservation rangers, and there are legends and tall tales.

Ask a whitebaiter how the whitebait are running, and they will likely suggest "Not well" and "You’ll probably have better luck somewhere else".

But ask them if catches are better now or in the past and they will say, seasonal fluctuations aside, things are just as good as they used to be. And that is the big part of the problem.

Data on whitebait numbers is up for debate.

For every number produced by the Department of Conservation showing a decline in whitebait numbers, there is an equal and opposite number produced by whitebaiters to show whitebait are not in decline.

Whitebaiters put forward their own catch records, stretching back many years in some cases, but it is well known there are also plenty of whitebait caught and not recorded, mainly to avoid complications with the Inland Revenue department.

The little fish sell for about $80 per kilo, and it is not unheard of for some favourite rivers to deliver tonnes of whitebait in a season.

The whole messy conundrum of whitebait management is heading upstream to Wellington and the office of newly appointed Conservation Minister Kiri Allan.

She replaces the Green Party’s Eugenie Sage whose departure from the role some whitebaiters are celebrating.

Under her watch, the Department of Conservation has gone through the tortuous process of determining measures to better conserve whitebait numbers.

Doc’s recommendations have just gone off to Ms Allan and perhaps the most contentious suggestion is for whitebaiting to be banned on some rivers for periods of two years or even more than 10 years.

Plenty of possible "whitebait refuges" as Doc calls them, are along the West Coast of the South Island, although there are also some in Otago, Southland and elsewhere.

On the face of it, Doc has chosen the option most easily policed. On a river where there is a complete ban on whitebaiting, illegal activity will be quite obvious to a ranger in a helicopter or jet boat.

Other ways of restricting the amount of whitebait caught — banning commercial fishing for instance — would seem to require a more extensive, expensive and complex policing system, with every likelihood the blackmarket would thrive anyway.

Refuges are not the only measure being proposed. Technical changes to fishing methods are being suggested, including the phasing out of traps in nets, and the whitebait season could be aligned across all regions.

At some point early in her administration, Ms Allan will need to deliver a decision, and at that point whitebaiters on some rivers could find themselves out in the cold.

What their reaction will be is a bit like wondering what Donald Trump and his supporters might do next. It possibly won’t be good. There is talk of protests and civil disobedience.

If the new minister was to visit the whitebait stands of South Westland she would find there is a lot of heat along the river banks, and a lot of strong words being spoken.

Before making her decision, Ms Allan needs to be sure of her numbers.

Just how strong is the evidence provided by Doc experts that whitebait are in decline?

And, why is it still the case whitebaiters — with their close involvement with the whitebait populations — cannot be convinced of a decline, believing Doc’s evidence is fake news?

 

Comments

Ban all whitebaiting I say. As whitebait consists of immature fry of many important food species it is not an ecologically viable foodstuff.
The degradation of waterways through forest clearance, and the impacts of agriculture and urbanisation, have caused the whitebait catch to decline. The loss of suitable spawning habitat has been particularly severe, especially for inanga, which rely on dense riparian vegetation lining the tidal portions of waterways. Amongst other factors, a lack of shade over waterways has been shown to kill developing whitebait eggs
Loss of biodiversity, climate change, pollution and global pandemics are linked to human over exploitation of natural resources. We don't need to eat these baby fish, we are not going to starve to death without them! Just give it a break, stop being so greedy and self-fish!

Everytime one takes a bite of a whitebait pattie you are quite literally taking food out of the mouths of our wildlife and threatening the planets natural ecosystems.
At sea, the tiny whitebait probably feed on microscopic algae and zooplankton. Adults in rivers eat mainly the larvae of midges, sandflies, mayflies, and caddisflies. They also take little insects and moths that fall into streams.
At sea they fall prey to just about any creatures that feed by sieving plankton from the sea, from the great plankton-feeding whales down. Nearer the coast many fishes, such as kahawai and flounder, eat the whitebait. In the estuaries, gulls, shags, and terns feed on them, and in the rivers they are taken by kingfishers and herons. While eels are also a natural predator their population has suffered from the introduction of trout species that were introduced into New Zealand for sport fishing. Research has indicated that where trout have become established then adult whitebait are unlikely to be found.

 

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