Research into West Coast whitebaiting

Elizabeth Heeg. Photo: ODT files
Elizabeth Heeg. Photo: ODT files
The West Coast Whitebaiters Association says pilot research projects will be conducted on the Buller, Mokihinui and Hokitika rivers this season, which opens today.

Once the West Coast is in Covid Alert Level 2, Department of Conservation staff will talking to whitebaiters as part of a drive to boost knowledge of the native fishery.

Forest and Bird claims the species is in decline, but that is strongly refuted by West Coast whitebaiters.

In announcing changes to the fishery a few months ago, Conservation Minister Kiri Allan said better information about the health of the fishery was essential.

DOC aquatic unit director Elizabeth Heeg said rangers would be out observing and speaking to whitebaiters, but they would not generally ask them to gather catch data.

Some may offer to make their data available, while others may be surveyed during and after the season to understand their whitebaiting effort, success and satisfaction, she said.

"If whitebaiters keep records and make them available, we can begin to determine the effect of the harvest on the numbers of whitebait running."

The Greymouth Star asked DOC how it would approach whitebaiters when many feared Inland Revenue may chase them for tax.

Ms Heeg said staff were keen to work with others "without penalising individual fishers".

DOC had dedicated staff working on whitebait both locally and nationally, and would also work with contractors and researchers.

Whitebaiters association president Rob Roney said they were contacted by freshwater DOC staff in Wellington soon after the new regulations were announced, and again last week.

"It should be noted however that catch data, if required, from our members on a voluntary basis, would only be a small part of any meaningful research," Mr Roney said.

"Having said this, we know that many of our members keep personal catch records anyway, with some of our commercial whitebaiters having very accurate records going back as much as 40 years or more, and have shared this data with whitebait researchers associated with various university researchers, such as Dr Mike Hickford from Canterbury University."

Their expectation was that DOC would embark on a more complete programme of research.

In addition to catch quantity, other factors would need to be recorded such as time of day, hours spent fishing, tide and river conditions.

A criticism of the recent DOC review process was the overall lack of data and the quality of data. The effects of whitebaiting on the fish population was not even known, Mr Roney said.

"For example, are we adding to the overall predator load, or are we largely just displacing the effects of a long list of other predators? This list includes flounder, eels, trout, kahawai and many birds including kotuku and sea birds."

The biggest 'bang for bucks' to help the whitebait fishery was habitat restoration, including spawning areas in river
estuaries, and the West Coast was leading the way with this, he said.


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