Taranaki whitebaiters say they are more worried about exploitation of the delicacy than they are about Maori claims to the fishery.
South Taranaki iwi Ngaruahine has included whitebait in an application for customary rights made under the Marine and Coastal (Takutai Moana) Act, and has begun talks with the Crown.
Keen whitebaiter Barry Walker had his net in the Waiwhakaiho River on the outskirts of New Plymouth yesterday.
Mr Walker, who has recently moved to the city from Opunake in South Taranaki, said he had no problem with Ngaruahine seeking customary rights to whitebait in its rohe - with one proviso.
"Well, it'll be all right as long as the public has still got access to whitebait and there's no restrictions or anything. The only restriction I'd like to see is on the sale of whitebait.
"You can't sell trout and you've got to have a quota to sell fish and crayfish and that. So why should the public be able to sell whitebait?"
Mr Walker was more concerned about unscrupulous whitebaiters, like a couple he ran into up the coast last season.
"There was these two fellas down there, and they were actually fishing the river out, literally fishing it out.
"The first time I went down there they had a screen just about the whole way across the river and it's those sorts of things that need to be looked into a bit more. And they were doing it simply to sell."
According to the Office of Treaty Settlements for customary rights to be recognised, an iwi must prove it has exercised an activity in accordance with tikanga since 1840 and continues to exercise it.
If an application was successful it allowed the applicant to carry out the activity without needing a resource consent.
Local authorities were also not allowed to issue resource consents that would have adverse effects on the activity, unless the applicant agreed.
Former Treaty negotiator Daisy Noble, who is spearheading Ngaruahine's customary rights application, said if it was successful it would have no effect on regular whitebaiters and would be more of a moral victory for iwi members than anything else.
"The only change there will be is to Maori themselves. They can actually stand there and be able to say 'under my customary rights and interests I am able to fish that resource in accordance with my customs and my practices', because that's what customary rights and interests are."
Ms Noble said the application arose out the role of iwi as kaitiake or guardian of the environment, and a desire to seek recognition of the historical importance of whitebait to the iwi.
In the past the iwi had fished for whitebait but ate little of it, instead preferring to use it to trade.
Ms Noble said the iwi wanted to work with whitebaiters, the regional council and the Department of Conservation to help preserve the fishery for the future.
Back down on the Waiwhakaiho River, Ngaruahine's stance had the support of Ross Sullivan, who was fishing with his wife Jo.
"I think it's good because they are only looking after the whitebait someone's got to make it and do it. There's too many greedy people out there. Get rid of the greedy ones and they'll be plenty for everyone.
"They realise it's a Kiwi thing and it is, and I think it will continue, but it needs to be tightened up."
Further along the riverbank, long-time whitebaiter Porky Clarke questioned the need for formal recognition of Maori of customary rights.
"I'm easy going. To me it's like everyone's got a right, no matter if you're a Maori or Pakeha or Asian or whatever. As long as they look after it and do the right thing then you don't need it."
To maintain whitebait stocks Ms Clarke, who is of Te Atiawa descent, said its sale should be banned and the season shortened to three months.
The Crown intends to begin formal engagement with Ngaruahine shortly, but a decision on the iwi's application for customary rights was likely to be some time away.