On the opening day of the whitebait season, Forest & Bird is calling for bold steps to save the four endangered native fish in the whitebait catch from extinction.
“We continue to catch and eat threatened fish in a largely unregulated fishery where there’s no catch limit and no fishing license required,” says Forest & Bird Freshwater Advocate, Annabeth Cohen.
“Catching whitebait means there are fewer of these native fish to reach breeding age – it’s yet another nail in the whitebait coffin along with habitat loss and water quality decline.”
“If we truly love whitebaiting in New Zealand, then we have to do something to save these species from going extinct. Continuing to catch and sell whitebait knowing that they are in trouble is like sawing off the branch you are sitting on.”
In a Department of Conservation survey of over 2,500 people this year, 90% of people said they’d like to see the whitebait fishery managed more sustainably.
“These fish are just as special to New Zealand as kiwi, kākāpō, and kererū,” says Ms Cohen.
“Until whitebait and their habitats are thriving, it makes no sense to allow companies to sell these fish for a profit.”
Besides a pause on commercial whitebaiting, New Zealand could look at management options like catch limits, fishing licenses, temporarily closing catchments where fish populations are down, shortening the season, or stopping fishing during the spring tide (just after a new or full moon) when the biggest rushes of whitebait swim from sea to fresh water.
Whitebait fishing regulations will be reviewed with public consultation by next year. This will be the time for people to have input on the best whitebait fishery management options says Ms Cohen.
This month the Minister for the Environment David Parker looks set to begin public consultation on a new National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management.
“Regional councils and central government need to restore and protect wetlands and rivers, improve water quality, and remove the barriers in streams stopping our whitebait fish from migrating. The National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management needs to be strong on these issues,” says Ms Cohen.
“There is a future where our fresh water will be healthy, whitebait will return to abundance along with all of our struggling native fish, and a sustainable commercial harvest will be possible.
“But right now, the loss and degradation of freshwater habitat is so huge, we shouldn’t be adding to the decline of whitebait with continued commercial harvesting,” says Ms Cohen.
Notes for journalists:
Kōaro, shortjaw kōkopu, banded kōkopu, giant kōkopu and inanga are the galaxiid fish that make up the whitebait catch. They are New Zealand’s migratory galaxiids. They are just five of the dozens of fish species that migrate between fresh water and sea water every year.
Common smelt is also a native fish that is part of the whitebait catch.
The Conservation status of New Zealand freshwater fishes 2017 lists three of the whitebait species as 'at risk - declining' and one as 'threatened'.
The whitebait fishing season opens on 15 August, except for the West Coast where it opens on 1 September.