Big surf on river mouths yesterday morning made for a slow start to the three-and-a-half-month whitebait season.

Whitebaiters lined Hawke's Bay rivers from before dawn in pursuit of the juveniles of five native fish species, all in decline and four threatened.

Forest and Bird have called for whitebaiting-for-profit to end.

In stark comparison to trout, an introduced species that eats whitebait, whitebait has no catch limit and anyone can sell it.

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Second-generation whitebaiter Dean Dawson said the quantity of whitebait in Hawke's Bay was not enough to be commercial.

He holds the same Ngaruroro Riverbank stand as his father did and said, thanks to habitat protection, the Hawke's Bay fishery was now more sustainable.

"There wouldn't be 50 to 60 whitebaiters registering on this river if there wasn't whitebait to be caught at some stage," he said.

"It is still a good opportunity for people to come down and catch a feed, that's what it's all about."

But it can be a good earner for some. During season there are no catch limits and the delicacy can be sold freely, often retailing for more than $100 a kg.

Despite no limit on whitebait quantity and a long season, Department of Conservation ranger Rod Hansen said the rules were sometimes broken in Hawke's Bay and people prosecuted.

"There is about 1700 to 2000 whitebait in a kg, so if you take out 10 kg that's 20,000 whitebait not going up the river to spawn," he said.

"That's significant and why there is a restriction on the season and the hours you are allowed to fish."

Dawson said greater whitebait numbers on the South Island's West Coast have made it big business.

"I've heard of catches of 100kg to 200kg a day. It is a ridiculous amount of whitebait in the context of what we catch, and they make a living out of it.

"I've seen locations online selling for $70,000 to $80,000 down there. It is a very lucrative market in the South Island."

For most Hawke's Bay whitebaiters, it is not about catching fish.

"I hate fishing but I love whitebaiting," Tukituki River whitebaiter Waipuna Nohokau said.

"You don't see it very often, and when you do see it, it is just a joy to see.

"I stay down here for 12 hours, easy."

Dawson said whitebaiting was "almost a rite of passage for Kiwis" and credits steady numbers to habitat protection by the Department of Conservation and the Hawke's Bay Regional Council.

On the Tutaekuri River Peter Smith said it was a "bit of a hobby".

"People die in bed, so you gotta get out," he said.

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