Native species under threat

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The whitebait fishery is a peculiar one – four of the six whitebait species are threatened or at risk of extinction, yet it is one of the few, if not only, fisheries without a catch limit. Reporter Laura Smith takes a closer look at why that is.

WITH less than a month left in the season, the last chance to get out on the river and catch a feed of whitebait is November 30 for most of the country.

Driving through Southland, it is typical to see fisherfolk at their stands – as well as cultural tradition, whitebaiting is seen by many as a pleasant and productive way to spend a morning or afternoon.

Southland whitebaiter Ken Cochrane said the season had being going well, with plenty of people out on the water.

However, it could mean future seasons might not be so positive if there was not enough escapement.

“If you get a really bad year, some people won’t go fishing so you get more escapement. So if you catch them all, what’s going to happen next year? It’s incredibly complex.”

This could have a flow-on effect – if there was little recruitment of whitebait after one season, it could alter the number of whitebait in future seasons. This meant while there might be fewer people on the water fishing, it did not change the fact there were fewer fish to breed.

Department of Conservation (Doc) freshwater manager south Elizabeth Heeg said there were multiple factors which influenced the size of whitebait populations from season to season.

“We know that ensuring a proportion of juveniles (whitebait) make it upstream to adult habitat is essential for the persistence of the species and the fishery. That’s why it’s important for whitebaiters to follow the whitebaiting regulations. Local stream conditions, weather, such as heavy flushing rainfalls, and loss of habitat impact on whitebait species.”

Mr Cochrane is also a member of the Whitebait Working Group, which was established to help provide Doc with information to help whitebait management, particularly in areas of population health, find out what could be done to restore declined populations and to ensure a sustainable whitebait fishery.

This was separate to the Conservation (Indigenous Freshwater Fish) Amendment Bill which was passed a few weeks ago.

The bill focused mainly on indigenous freshwater fish as a whole, but also covers the whitebait fishery.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said, “The legislation enables the Director-General of Conservation to introduce authorisation for whitebaiting in conservation areas if necessary in future, to better manage whitebaiting.

“Any new authorisation process will not come into force any earlier than two years after the bill becomes law. There will be public consultation on any changes to the whitebaiting regulations.”

Mr Cochrane said the lack of regulations, in particular catch limit, in the whitebait fishery was a cause of stress on the six species.

“Social rules work in some circumstances… when it comes to fisheries, the lack of legislative rules in the whitebait industry is essentially a lot to do with the problems.”

Outcomes of the consultation period the working group was involved in with Doc included several possible outcomes to protect the species and ensure sustainable fishing – habitat protection and restoration, changes to the whitebait regulations covering fishing gear, whitebait seasons, and closed areas as well as conducting science and research to address knowledge gaps.

Ms Heeg said Doc was encouraging people to support local initiatives to restore spawning and adult whitebait habitats and to reduce their impact on the freshwater environment.

“If people see overhanging culverts or other barriers that stop whitebait moving upstream, they are asked to please contact their local Doc or regional council office.”

She said Doc patrolled whitebait sites and talked to whitebaiters throughout the seasons to ensure people were complying with the regulations. Illegal whitebaiting carried a maximum fine of $5000 and whitebaiting equipment could be seized.

“Work is currently under way to improve whitebait management, with 90% of respondents to a Doc survey saying changes are needed to make New Zealand’s whitebait fishery sustainable.

“We plan to release a discussion document for public consultation later this year, with proposals to improve whitebait management.”

She said of about 2870 survey responses received by Doc in 2018/19, 39% of whitebait fishers reported their catches had declined in the past decade.

The West Coast had its own regulations on whitebait fishing, and Ms Heeg said The West Coast Sustainable Wild Whitebait Project (SWWF) focused on identified individual enhancement sites.

“There has been some monitoring put in place, but it is too early to report on any results.

“This project model could be rolled out in other locations depending on how the work progresses.”

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