Photo: Sophie Preece
... whitebait was so abundant they would feed it to the cat, while neighbours were known to dig it into the garden as fertiliser. A L E X E L L E RY
DOC will prepare a discussion document with proposals to improve whitebait management for the Minister of Conservation and government to consider. The discussion document is planned for release later this year and will be followed by public consultation.
800 years of family fishing
When the tide is out, the table is set, says Kevin Abbott with a grin as he sets his whitebait net in the Wairau River at dawn. By the time the sun glints on the water he’s sitting back and waiting for a school of the juvenile fish to travel upstream on the rising tide. Once he’s got a cup or two, he’ll throw them into a pan with a single egg to make a purist’s whitebait fritter, thick with white threads of fish. He has been whitebaiting since he was a child, when he could catch a pound for his mum before he set off for school. Since then he’s been a commercial paua diver and cray fisherman, caught wild deer on choppers and worked in forestry, but he’s always come back to the Wairau Bar for kahawai, whitebait and flounder. Things have changed over the years, and now the banks of the Wairau can be lined with campervans between August and November, their occupants settled in for long days of fishing. It’s all very well and nice to spend your retirement parked up in a campervan catching buckets of whitebait, but it doesn’t bode well for the future of the species, says Kevin, who would like to see more regulation of the fishery. But looking to the fishers alone is missing a big part of the picture, because whitebait are also heavily influenced by what’s happening upstream, far from the nets at the bar, he says, talking of a wine industry that takes water from the rivers and aquifers and sprays chemicals at the edges of waterways. Stock management and forestry are also playing their part in decimating habitats, he says. “It’s our environmental impact on our whole system.” Around 800 years ago, Kevin’s ancestors were fishing here too, as is being discovered through archaeological studies of Te Pokohiwi o Kupe by Otago University and Rangitane, the local iwi. The work has included excavations of huge double-lined ovens created for single feasts, where the remains of paua, seals, pipi, cockles, eels, the Haast eagle and moa have been found. The mark of his ancestors remains throughout the province, says Kevin, pulling up Google Earth on his mobile phone to show the shadowed lines of ancient kumara beds, the dents of storage or cooking pits and the circles of fish traps in the Wairau Lagoons. However, on this early morning, he is happy to concentrate on his own little harvest – half a cup of wriggling translucent fish, bound for a whitebait fritter. Above: Alex Ellery seeks enough whitebait for a fritter or two; whitebait fritters 44
here are no plans for a “blanket ban” on whitebaiting, says Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage of the Conservation (Indigenous Freshwater Fish) Amendment Bill, which had its second reading in Parliament in August. Rather, the bill is part of the Government’s plan “to back nature”, and includes tools to improve the way native fish are managed to make sure they survive for generations now and in the future. “These include ensuring native fish can have some rivers and streams where they can swim upstream and spawn without being caught in a net.” The response comes after National’s Conservation spokesperson Sarah Dowie claimed the bill would ultimately result in the prohibition of whitebaiting in New Zealand, “unless there is specific authorisation to do otherwise”. The whitebaiting community feel the consultation process has been a farce “and they are concerned about their future livelihoods and the future of the Kiwi pastime”, she said in promoting a petition to save whitebaiting. The minister says such suggestions are an attempt to muddy the waters with misinformation “rather than focusing on making sure there is a sustainable fishery”. The bill does enable areas of conservation land to be closed to whitebaiting, so “native fish can have some rivers and streams where they can swim upstream and spawn without ending up in a net and a whitebait patty”, she says. “More than 70% of New Zealand’s native fish species are threatened or at risk of extinction. The whitebait fishery needs better management and the Bill provides the tools to do that. There is already strong public support to improve the management of whitebait fisheries and there will be public consultation before any changes are made to the whitebaiting regulations.” She says DOC’s recent survey found 90% of respondents wanted changes to make the whitebait fishery sustainable. “This consultation was done to form the basis for further engagement with iwi, hapū, stakeholders, and the wider public as the details of any changes to regulations are worked through.” The Bill isn’t just about whitebait, and includes tools to help protect other freshwater fish like long finned eels, she says. “A key part is to improve the rules to protect fish passages so fish can get upstream and downstream to breed without being blocked by culverts and dams.”
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