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As the West Coast whitebaiting season closes this Sunday, Forest & Bird is reminding everyone of new rules for 2022, and asking for meaningful management measures to save our endangered native fish.  

Next year, the Department of Conservation will shorten the whitebaiting season to 60 days (about 2 months) for the entire country, reduced from 75 days on the West Coast and 108 days in the rest of New Zealand (excluding the Chatham Islands). 

“It is important people know why these changes are being made. Our whitebait species are in serious trouble, facing extinction,” says Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen. 

“A shorter season is a step in the right direction, but it won’t do enough to save native freshwater fish.”

“These threatened fish travel up-stream to complete their life cycle, and for two months they are dodging nets with no catch limit, including commercial fishing,” says Ms Cohen. 

“This is a horrific way to treat threatened native species.” 

“The changes that DOC and the Minister for Conservation have made are hopelessly inadequate. Threatened native fish species, like the shortjaw kōkopu and kōaro, can be fished with no catch-limit, fishing license, or data collection.”  

A series of minor changes to the whitebait fishery are being implemented by Department of Conservation over three years:  

  • In 2021 fishing has been restricted to tidal zones. 
  • In 2022 there will be a shorter season for most of the country. 
  • In 2023 the rest of the country will be brought in-line with existing West Coast fishing gear restrictions.  

“Native freshwater fish will only have a fighting chance when there is a cap on how much fish can be caught, a license to know how much people are fishing, and data to show where the fishing is happening. These are the basics of managing a fishery.” 

“Native fish in New Zealand are experiencing death by a thousand cuts, like dirty water running at a trickle, wetlands being drained for farming, and streams being enclosed in pipes for urban sprawl.”  

“Over-fishing is one pressure we can easily alleviate. Shortening the season and limiting gear won’t remove the threat of overfishing and it won’t bring them back to the abundant populations from mere decades ago.”  

About whitebait fish:
The five migratory galaxiid fish in New Zealand’s whitebait catch are:  

  • kōaro (at risk – declining) 
  • shortjaw kōkopu (threatened – nationally vulnerable) 
  • banded kōkopu (doing okay) 
  • giant kōkopu (at risk – declining) 
  • īnanga (at risk – declining) 

Common smelt is also a native fish that is part of the whitebait catch but are not a galaxiid species and are not classed as a threatened species.  

All whitebait fish are ‘diadromous’ – spending part of their life in fresh water and part of their life in the sea. Each species grows to a different size, has a different lifespan, and a different breeding pattern.  

If allowed to grow, some species can reach almost 60 cm long, while others can live for over a decade and swim to clean fast-running habitat in mountain streams.

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