Whitebaiting rules are set to change in a bid to save the species. But do the Government proposals go far enough?
Whitebait is a part of Kiwi life.
Across the country these tiny juvenile fish draw people to where rivers meet the sea.
Scooped and sluiced, our iconic delicacy features at school fairs, family barbecues and flash restaurants alike.
Protecting whitebait is as much about preserving a valued cultural practice, as it is about our indigenous biodiversity.
Now the Government is making moves to rescue the fish from decline.
Consultation has begun on measures including safe havens for whitebait to spawn, a shorter whitebait season and a phase-out of whitebait exports and large volume catch nets.
• Whanganui meeting on changes to whitebait fishing rules
• Crackdown on Whanganui whitebaiters flouting rules
• So many whitebait ... Whanganui news briefs
• Whanganui whitebaiters urged to follow the rules as season starts
Change will be welcomed by many.
In 2018 the Department of Conservation surveyed 3000 stakeholders from Northland to Southland. Ninety per cent of respondents believe changes are needed to make New Zealand's whitebait fishery sustainable.
From iwi and conservationists through to fishers and the Whitebait Working Group, there is strong consensus on the major issues for whitebait and how to deal with them.
But some stakeholder suggestions have been ignored by the Government.
A ban on the commercial sale of whitebait within New Zealand is off the table. Introducing catch limits is also not recommended. There have been mixed views on these options.
Is this stopping short of making a lasting impact?
Our whitebait fishing regulations are woefully unfit for purpose and they have remained unchanged for decades. There is no real enforcement of the few rules we do have.
Habitat loss means four of our six whitebait species are at risk or threatened.
Old time catch stories reveal a staggering abundance: taking whitebait away in kerosene drums 50 years ago; whitebait so thick in rivers that passing horses would kick them out with their hooves; numbers proving too much for local canning factories at the turn of the century.
We treat the whitebait fishery as if it reflects the bountiful supplies of our long-gone past. Now we are playing catch-up.
The answer is to restore the freshwater, wetland and coastal marine habitats. Full restoration would take a generation or more. But there are quick wins.
The Government's proposal to reduce the season when catch is allowed is one of these quick wins. This would mean the rarer of the six whitebait species, such as kōkopu and kōaro, would be less likely to be caught as they travel upstream.
Ending overseas exports is a good idea too, but it begs the question, is ruling out a ban on commercial sales within New Zealand a missed opportunity?
We should be able to enjoy the thrill of big runs and festivities that bring people together, the sizzle of our much-loved fritter at a community event or family dinner. But keeping commercial catch on the menus at high-end Auckland restaurants is highly questionable.
We must demand a moratorium on the commercial sale for profit of whitebait until stocks are flourishing once more.
Galaxiids have a short life span, and one season's bait are generally the next season's breeders. Allowing stocks to rebuild improves the outlook of the fish for generations to come.
It is possible to bring whitebait back from decline. And if we give up a little today, we will get it back in buckets.
Toitū te marae a Tāne-Mahuta, toitū te marae a Tangaroa, toitū te tangata.
The DoC consultation document can be found here.
•Anne-Elise Smithson (BSc) is an environmentalist and former Auckland Council Local Board member.