Whitebait catches in the lower Kaituna River have declined massively since surveying first began in the 1930s.

"There's ever increasing people pressure on the amount of fish to be taken from the waterway," said Peter Ellery, wetland project manager at Maketū Ongatoro Wetland Society.

Ellery has embarked on a mission to rejuvenate the whitebait population by creating a series of small ponds linked to the river to maximise spawning potential. All his work is voluntary, assisted by local councils and community groups.

"Part of the problem is that it's still a commercial fishery and in actual fact it's the only fishery in New Zealand where recreational fishers can sell their catch," he said.

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"To a certain degree that leads to a whole lot of people spending all day on the side of the river in the hope that they might make a couple of hundred bucks."

Increased wetlands on the Lower Kaituna River will increase whitebait numbers. Photo / Gavin Ogden
Increased wetlands on the Lower Kaituna River will increase whitebait numbers. Photo / Gavin Ogden

Ellery is a strong supporter of de-commercialising whitebait fishing everywhere, except the West Coast, which he says can sustain a commercial catch.

"If everywhere else was the same as trout – you can catch some, you can give some away but you're not allowed to sell it – that would take quite a lot of pressure of it."

It's not just overfishing that's being blamed for the falling numbers - deterioration of the wetlands has also played a part.

"Both here and across the river, both of the spawning areas for this river, were quite considerably degraded and in need of enhancement and also because of the overall loss of habitat, any little bit that's put in makes a difference."

Originally called the Borrow Pits, Ellery's project was launched by the Maketu Taiapure Committee of Management to improve the quality and quantity of the local spawning habitat.

"Fish from both here and from quite a long way up and down river will arrive here because this is their spawning location."

Peter Ellery looks into a whitebait spawning site. Photo / Gavin Ogden
Peter Ellery looks into a whitebait spawning site. Photo / Gavin Ogden

Standing among the tall grasses and reeds on the riverbank, Ellery points out where the fish spawn.

"There'll literally be tens of thousands of them arrive and they'll all pile into the corner there on the side of the channel where the bridge is there. They'll congregate around the back of one piece of vegetation and they will spawn and leave their eggs in the vegetation.

"You can't actually see the spawning process because it's happening back in the vegetation but you can certainly see the thousands of fish circling around the area."

As well as being the perfect habitat for spawning, the ponds also offer protection from predators, although eels slip through for a quick bite to eat.

"Eels are part of the wildlife that live in the habitat, and these weedy ponds are the perfect habitat for them. They're there and they like a feed."

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