Change needed to protect whitebait in New Zealand You cannot have your fish and eat it too. Sophie Preece explains why.
cool wind ripples the waters of the Wairau diversion, hiding shoals of whitebait as they move upriver on an inward tide. Determined whitebaiters hunt them from the bank, some with basic scoop or set nets, as their grandparents may have used, and others using long sock nets with inescapable traps. Jan and Alex Ellery are sitting cold and patient at the river’s edge, with little hope of accruing a fritter’s worth of whitebait in their scoop by evening. But they’re pretty patient and content, their caravan parked behind them, two small dogs at their feet, and the tasty possibility of a passing shoal making its way to their pan. It’s a far cry from when self-described ‘feral’ Alex was growing up on the West Coast and whitebait was so abundant they would feed it to the cat, while neighbours were known to dig it into the garden as fertiliser. On the day we meet, the pickings are slim for those with handheld nets. However, there are enough whitebait scurrying up this river to ensure a cash influx for big-net fishers, who can catch as much as they want and sell it to whoever they want. That would be illegal with any other fish species in New Zealand, and it’s an anomaly that upsets the Ellerys and many others. The Department of Conservation surveyed nearly 3000 members of the public between October 2018 and February 2019 and found that Above: Netting the elusive whitebait Opposite page: Clockwise - Peter Hamill at Wairau Diversion; whitebait 42
That would be illegal with any other fish species in New Zealand … 89.3% wanted something done to keep the fishery sustainable. More than 75% ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that a bag limit or restriction on how much whitebait could be caught could be a solution. “If something is not done soon … Kiwis in generations to come will lament the loss of a wonderful way of life, pastime and a beautifully subtle gastronomic treat to eat and enjoy,” said one respondent. “Basically, everything is the problem,” said another. “No one wants to change their behaviour, but everyone agrees the fish are disappearing. New Zealanders are terrible at telling people ‘no’, but sometimes that’s the right answer.”
A culture of greed
Peter Hamill reckons in this case ‘no’ is definitely the right answer. The Marlborough District Council freshwater scientist hopes one day he’ll be able to head out and catch half a cup of whitebait, but until some pressure is taken off the beleaguered fishery, he’ll not throw his net in the waterways. “If it was managed like other fisheries, everyone would have the opportunity to catch a feed,” he says, beyond frustrated by an anomaly in New Zealand’s laws when it comes to the native galaxiids.
Photo: Matt Winter
Taking the Bait
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