Forest and Bird calls for a halt to commercial whitebaiting

Conservationists have called for an end to commercial whitebaiting as the season gets underway, saying four of the five native whitebait species are in danger of extinction.

The whitebaiting season runs from today until November 30, except on the West Coast of the South Island where it runs from September 1 to November 14.

Forest & Bird’s Freshwater Advocate Annabeth Cohen says ending the sale of whitebait would help alleviate the pressure on the struggling native fishes.

“Until whitebait and their habitats are thriving, it makes no sense to allow companies to sell these fish for a profit, especially when four out of five of the species are at risk of disappearing forever,” Ms Cohen said.

“We also need better controls on recreational whitebait catches. Most people don’t know there isn't a catch limit for native freshwater fish," she said.

Ms Cohen says it's time for regional councils and central government to take action on protecting and restoring wetlands and rivers, ending commercial catches, improving water quality, and putting recreational catch limits in place.

“Regulation isn’t doing much to protect whitebait. Currently, it is illegal to sell trout but not whitebait. Native fish aren’t even protected under the Wildlife Act. 

"New Zealand’s freshwater fish deserve better," she said.

“Whitebait used to be so plentiful they were caught by the truck-load and used for fertiliser on farms. When we have returned whitebait back to these population levels, we’ll know we’ve done a good job of caring for our native freshwater fish, and their rivers."

Kōaro, shortjawed kōkopu, banded kōkopu, giant kōkopu and inanga are the fish that make up the whitebait catch, Ms Cohen said. 

They are classified by the Department of Conservation as either threatened or declining, except the banded kōkopu. 

They are just five of the dozens of fish species that migrate between fresh water and sea water here every year, she said.

Department of Conservation freshwater scientist Jane Goodman told the NZ Herald habitat degradation is one of the key causes of declining whitebait populations.

"We encourage people to get in behind local initiatives to restore spawning and adult whitebait habitat and to reduce their impact on our freshwater environment," she said.

People who see overhanging culverts or other barriers that stop whitebait moving upstream should contact their local DOC or regional council office.

DOC will be patrolling whitebaiting sites and talking to whitebaiters to ensure people are complying with the regulations, Ms Goodman said.

Annabeth Cohen told TVNZ1’s Breakfast that if steps aren’t taken the fish could disappear very soon. Source: Breakfast