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Whitebait: A threatened species still being fished

It’s a favourite of many in Wairarapa, but this year’s whitebaiting season has been slashed due to the risk of whitebait extinction.
Regulation changes announced in July last year meant the whitebaiting season would now be two weeks shorter, beginning on September 1 and running until October 30.
In previous years the season has run into late November.
While the mouth of any stream or river has the potential for whitebait, people tended to flock to the opening of the Ruamahanga River at Lake Ferry in Wairarapa.
The government said the new whitebaiting regulations, previously unchanged since the 1990s, would be in place indefinitely, and also sees upstream limits apply to whitebaiters.

Giant Kokopu at Pukaha. PHOTO/TARA SWAN

The Department of Conservation [DOC] said the shorter season would reduce fishing pressure on the most threatened species of whitebait during their peak migration period.
DOC’s whitebait fishery manager Nick Moody said four of the six whitebait species were classified as threatened or at risk of extinction from a variety of causes, including habitat loss and barriers to their migration.
“Our goal is to ensure healthy and restored whitebait populations and provide equitable access to a sustainable and thriving fishery. We want to ensure the decline is reversed. No one wants to see whitebait go extinct.”
National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research [Niwa] said whitebait was made up of six juvenile native fish species.
The species all came from the genus galaxiidae, a family of fish confined to the Southern Hemisphere.
Juvenile fish considered whitebait included inanga, koaro, banded kokopu, giant kokopu, and shortjaw kokopu.
Niwa said the larvae of the species were born in freshwater, swept out to sea with the tide and return to rivers and streams in spring as whitebait.
“The most common species is the inanga, but both the banded kokopu and koaro make up significant proportions of the fishery.”
It said whitebait were translucent in appearance and about four to five cm long.
Rule changes meant fishing was now only allowed where water levels are affected by the tide. Back pegs will mark this point in some rivers.
Fishing has been prohibited within 20 metres of structures such as weirs and groynes where fish congregate.
Screens have become the only legal fish diversion, but they can now only be longer than three metres.
Additionally, only one net will be allowed to be used while fishing and the maximum water will be one-quarter of its width.
The minimum fixed distance between fixed fishing gear, excluding stands, is now 20 metres.
Minister of Conservation Kiri Allan said the regulations signalled a more equitable fishery, easing the pressure on whitebait species while providing better alignment and consistency of fishing rules across the country.
“Whitebait are taonga, mahinga kai for Maori, and a valuable part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity. Once plentiful, four of the six species we have are now threatened or at risk of extinction.
“No one wants to see whitebait disappear; they are part and parcel of our food heritage, with at least one annual festival celebrating the treasured delicacies,” Allan said.
She said the new regulations came after two years of public engagement and would be rolled out over three whitebaiting seasons, making it easier for whitebaiters to make the necessary adjustment.
“While they are an important step towards a sustainable fishery, where whitebait survive and thrive, they are only part of the process to ensure the future of whitebait species.
Allan said better information was essential to any need for further changes to the programme or regulations and to ensure whitebait management continues to be effective.
She said we all had a role to play in making sure whitebait didn’t become merely a memory to hand down to the next generation.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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