Is New Zealand's whitebait population fried?

5:48 am on 8 December 2016

Reports of a lacklustre whitebait catch in some regions this season are sparking calls for the iconic delicacy to be better regulated.

Whitebait in egg.

Whitebait Photo: Kennedy Warne

Whitebaiters around the country have hung up their nets as the official season came to an end last week.

While some have been able to fill their freezers full of white gold others' nets were much emptier than they would have liked.

Southland Recreational Whitebaiters Association president Roger McNaughton has fished for whitebait in the region for more than 50 years.

He said this season's catch was lower than last, and he believed local stocks were declining.

"Your average catch rate 30 years ago, I would suspect the catch rates now are much lower."

The sale of whitebait, alongside environmental degradation, lay at the heart of the problem, he said.

"Recently the price of whitebait has skyrocketed, it's something like $100 plus a kilo, and this really puts the pressure on getting out there and catching it.

"The only control at the moment is the period in which you can fish for whitebait. There's no limit on the size of the catch or whether it can be sold."

Whakatane whitebaiter Kevin McCracken had been catching whitebait for 64 years.

While it had been a bumper season in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, demand for whitebait was putting pressure on the stock, he said.

"When there were no freezers around there was plenty of whitebait."

"There's still plenty of whitebait but a lot of it is being taken for monetary purposes."

People were selling it to put food on the table or make a bit of extra cash, he said.

The numbers of adult native fish stocks were declining but no one knew what was happening to the whitebait population because it had never been measured, Massey University fresh water ecologist Mike Joy said.

"The reality is it's a completely uncontrolled fishery apart from the seaon, there's no records kept."

Every other fishery had a quota management and minimum measurements of what was happening in that fishery, he said.

"But not whitebait. It's a free-for-all."

Native fish should be given the same protection as imported trout, which cannot be sold, he said.

"It would take a lot of pressure off the fishery if they do that."

But Canterbury University marine ecologist Mike Hickford disagreed.

"I don't think it's needed. I don't think banning commercial whitebaiting is the smart place to start."

Data collection needed to be carried out first before deciding if there was a problem, Dr Hickford said.

The Department of Conservation said a partnership with Otago University to study whitebait stocks, as well as research from other universities, would help shape its policy on the issue.

It was also collecting information and working with regional councils to get a better picture of whether the existing controls on whitebaiting were working and whether improvements were needed.

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