Habitat loss, pollution, introduced fish species and fishing pressure has led to some whitebait species being at risk or threatened.
Tauranga whitebaiter Des Ward has only been doing it for a few seasons but has already noticed the decline in whitebait numbers.
“On average, I would catch two or three kilograms but this season I’m lucky if I get a kilogram and a half.”
It’s a far cry from Des’ childhood memories in Whakatane where he and his family would bring in buckets of whitebait; a catch that Des says would be worth thousands in today’s market.
Des recalls whitebaiting in Whakatane a few seasons ago where he pulled in five kilograms of whitebait an hour. His partner then sold them on Facebook at $20 for 200 grams, he says it was all gone in a few hours.
“They went like hotcakes.”
Whitebait now goes for upwards of $100 a kilogram. The premium price has led to criticism that it’s encouraging commercial whitebaiting, which is considered to play a part in the declining numbers.
Whitebait is made up of six native species – four of which are at risk, declining or threatened. If allowed to grow, some of these species can grow to almost 60cm, while others can live for more than a decade.
Forest & Bird’s freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen says New Zealand’s native fish species are experiencing death by a thousand cuts.
“Our whitebait species are at risk or threatened with extinction. They travel through a largely unregulated fishery at the start of their lives and go on to live in habitats where bottom lines for pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus are still not good enough.”
Today Des seems to have caught a feed but not much more. It’s a sunny day and he’s setting his nets on the Wairoa River close to State Highway 2.
Even if you’re not into whitebaiting the appeal of sitting on a riverbank in the sun is somewhat universal, but for whitebaiting success, Des says the best time to go is in the rain.
Along with the declining numbers, Des says the whitebait he does catch are bigger than what he would like. He says the larger whitebait are not as good for fritters and although they can be nice crumbed and deep fried, he would prefer to catch the smaller ones.
Des feels the biggest impact on the whitebait numbers is not from recreational whitebaiters like himself but from environmental changes to the river.
He says pollutants and the destruction of whitebait habitats are the biggest contributors to the declining numbers.
Department of Conservation freshwater manager Elizabeth Heeg says the threats to whitebait in the Bay of Plenty vary from river to river but could include draining wetlands, deforestation, pollution and irrigation. Along with loss of whitebait spawning sites, pressure from introduced species and fishing pressure.
Whitebait don’t come back to the same rivers they were spawned in so are treated as a single population by DOC across the country. This makes it hard to tell if Bay of Plenty rivers have the same threat to whitebait as others across the country.
NIWA’s freshwater fish ecologist Eimear Egan says there is lots of anecdotal evidence which suggests whitebait numbers are declining but currently there is no scientific research done to back up waitbaiters’ claims.
She says this makes it hard to know if whitebait numbers are actually declining.
Eimear says whitebait numbers vary from year to year and place to place across the country.
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to whitebait numbers says Eimear, it can be down to as little as rain and weather patterns.
“There’s a lot of potential drivers for increases and fluctuations.”
The Department of Conversation released a summary of submissions in October on whitebait management which showed strong support by both fishers and non-fishers for tighter rules.
Some suggestions made by DOC were shortening the whitebait season from finishing in November 30 to October 14, creating whitebait refuges, phasing out some whitebait fishing practices and phasing out the export of whitebait.
Des thinks that catch limits for recreational fishermen will not likely do much for whitebait numbers but agrees tighter restrictions around commercial whitebaiting would be positive.
“They’re the ones who fish with the biggest nets you can find and they’re the ones who take the most… where’s the sustainability in that?”
Part of DOC’s recommendations is to phase out sock nets, traps, screens and diversions.
Des thinks the best way to protect the whitebait is by creating protected reserves where the fish can feed in protected habitats without the threat of fishing or changes to the whitebait’s environment. This is similar to DOC’s recommendation of whitebait refuges.
He says at the moment whitebait have to travel long distances up stream before they can rest and eat in a safe habitat.
Des says more protected areas will also benefit whitebaiters.
“If you’ve got more areas like that, you’ll have more places to whitebait.”
Freshwater advocate Annabeth says it’s now up to the government to implement change if whitebait are to be enjoyed by future generations.
The West Coast whitebaiting season finished on November 14 while the rest of the country is in the tail end of the season, finishing on November 30.