Time to change whitebait seasons

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files

The start of the whitebait season is a rite of passage for many New Zealanders, just like it is for those anxiously awaiting the duck-shooting season.

Stands have been tidied up, nets repaired, and the hope of large catches springs eternal. Stories from the past, true or false, about kerosene tins of whitebait shared among family and friends abound. Aah, the good old days.

Now, however, there are genuine worries overfishing of whitebait has endangered the species. As is usual, the two sides of the debate are deeply divided.

The five main species of whitebait include inanga, koaro, banded kokopu, giant kokopu and shortjaw kokopu. Whitebait catches sometimes include smelt, bullies and juvenile eels.

Based on the population of adults, whitebait is in decline. According to the Doc website, the shortjaw kokopu is "threatened" while three species - inanga, koaro and giant kokopu - are in "decline".

A trout and rivers advocacy group, the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers, wants whitebait and eels largely de-commercialised. Federation president Graham Carter is supporting the Forest and Bird Society, which recently said whitebait should not be for sale.

West Coast Whitebaiters Association president Des McEnaney says people calling for a ban rely on hearsay and flawed research.

Evidence shows the vast majority of whitebaiters follow the rules, such as using one net at a time, staying within 10 metres of their net and making sure it does not exceed more than a third of the water channel’s width.

Illegal whitebaiting carries a maximum fine of $5000 and fishing equipment may be seized.

Statistics on how many fines have been issued and equipment confiscated are difficult to find.

Mr Carter says there are numerous cases of city people taking large quantities of West Coast whitebait and ferrying hundreds of kilograms back to urban areas where they are sold "under the counter" and for cash, thereby avoiding tax.

In some cases, he alleges, a group of urban whitebaiters are making $60,000 to $80,000 for a couple of months of plundering.

The federation is calling for a daily limit of 3kg to 4kg, depending on the region.

Two years ago, there was documented evidence of anger among some Maori over what they say is the commercialisation of the delicacy. They were concerned then about the long-term drop in whitebait numbers due to dairy intensification, erosion and over-fishing.

A call was made then for more research into whitebait stocks and better management of its fishing.

Whitebait prices soar during times of shortage because of demand. A whitebait fritter, with a wedge of lemon, is a true New Zealand delicacy - and one Kiwis look forward to annually.

Whitebait stands have been known to change hands for more than $20,000, such is the demand for prime spots on the banks of our rivers.

New research indicates long and short-fin eels, and whitebait stocks, could be all gone by 2050 because of water quality and commercial over-fishing.

When Bluff oysters have been under threat, various governments have put tight quotas, or even bans, on their harvest to preserve the delicacy for future generations.

If any government is going to make a difference to the rejuvenation of whitebait and eel stocks, it must be the current coalition which includes Green Party ministers.

The only restrictions imposed on taking the juveniles of these threatened species is the time of the year when they can be fished for and the time of the day. Unscrupulous individuals will always take as much as they can for sale because of no quotas and no limits.

For  whitebait seasons to be sustainable well into the future, it is time for limits to be imposed, and perhaps even a season off.

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