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Tighter whitebait fishing rules on the way, but advocates say it doesn't go far enough

New rules for whitebait fishing will be phased in from this year’s season in the hopes it would help protect species vulnerable to becoming extinct. 

Whitebait (file photo). Source: 1 NEWS

From August 15, the opening of whitebait season, fishing won’t be allowed within 20 metres of structures such as weirs and groynes where fish congregate, the Government announced today.

Fishing can only occur in estuaries and near river mouths nationwide, which is already the case on the West Coast. 

There will also be more whitebait refuges in bodies of water that flow out of Abel Tasman and Fiordland national parks will help to protect whitebait populations.

The maximum length fishing gear can enter waterways is one quarter of its width, excluding stands. Only one net can be used when fishing from a stand. For fixed gear, the minimum distance will be 20 metres. 

Acting Conservation Minister Ayesha Verrall said the changes were “long overdue” because regulations for whitebait hadn’t been reviewed since the 1990s. 

“Four of the six whitebait species are threatened or at risk of extinction. 

“While fishing pressure is a contributing factor, habitat loss, environmental degradation, impeded fish passage within river systems, loss of spawning sites and introduced fish species are also impacting whitebait numbers.”

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The whitebaiters fear the bill could undermine their customary rights and say the focus should be on cleaning up waterways. Source: 1 NEWS

She said the changes focused on “practicality and common sense” after two years of consultation over the proposed regulations, which attracted more than 11,500 submissions. 

From next year, the whitebait season would be shortened to September 1 to October 30 nationwide. From 2023, fishing gear will be limited to six metres in length for all New Zealand. 

The Green Party said it was pleased with the announced measures because it meant a more consistent approach nationwide. 

But, Greens conservation spokesperson Eugenie Sage said it was disappointing to see the Government had progressed so few of the original proposals from the Department of Conservation, which asked for a range of whitebait refuges. 

“The proposals for refuges in rivers downstream of Abel Tasman and Fiordland National Parks are welcome – but they don’t go far enough,” she said. 

“Very few rivers or reaches of rivers across the country are closed to whitebaiting. We need significantly more safe havens where whitebait can migrate upstream and breed free from fishing pressure.”

Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen said the changes were disappointing because they were only “fluff around the edges”. 

Cohen said gear restrictions would “do very little” to protect at-risk fish species because there still wasn’t a limit to how much fish can be caught.

She said a shorter season would be an improvement, but it should have been implemented for this year’s season, instead of waiting for next year.

“The most basic controls for a fishery are requiring a fishing license, establishing a catch limit, and having better data collection, but they are missing from the changes announced today. The essentials of fishery management are nowhere to be seen,” she said. 

Verrall acknowledged the immediate impact on the majority of fishers would be “minimal” because people would still be using the same gear and fishing in the same places when this year’s season opened. 

“The changes that are being made will better align practices nationwide, improve the long-term sustainability of the fishery and support recreational, low volume fishers. They do not affect customary fishing rights.”

She said DOC would be gathering more evidence about the state of whitebait fishing. 

This would include further monitoring, scientific assessment and economic analysis. 

“Better information is essential to ensure the whitebait management programme is effective and any need for further changes to the programme or regulations are identified.”

Changes would be phased over three seasons “to assist with practical implementation” and give people time to adjust, Verrall said.