A West Coast whitebaiting tradition spanning generations may be banned - for health and safety reasons.
Westport Harbour authorities are considering banning whitebaiting under the Westport wharf.
More than 50 unhappy whitebaiters attended a meeting about the proposal last night called by harbour officials.
Harbour authorities told them they were worried about the safety of people accessing port operational areas and the harbour company's liability for any accidents. They gave whitebaiters a fortnight to come up with alternatives to a ban.
The whitebaiters formed a five-person committee to seek legal advice.
They said they had expected to lose their stands under the coal wharf if and when coal miner Bathurst Resources began its planned $30 million port upgrade. However, they thought they would retain access to the rest of the wharves
"If you are not in the [Bathurst] area why shouldn't you be allowed to whitebait? This is a tradition," said committee member Paul Bonisch, whose family has fished under the wharf for 60 years.
Allowing whitebaiters access to the wharf during the 10-week whitebait season wasn't too much to ask, especially as conditions usually meant they could only fish for about five weeks, Mr Bonisch said.
Whitebaiters had a long history of co-operating with harbour authorities. They vacated when ship movements or port work were taking place.
To his knowledge there had been only two serious accidents at the wharf, neither involving whitebaiters.
Another committee member, Dean Skilton, who has fished under the wharf for 35 years, said harbour authorities should have consulted whitebaiters sooner.
"It's just a shame we've had very little input into the way they are thinking and we've had very little time to respond to it. Why couldn't they have involved us from the word go, so we could have some consultation with them?"
However, he could understand harbour authorities trying to limit their liability and hoped whitebaiters could find a solution.
"The reality is, unless we can get a lawyer to state ... we take liability away from the harbour board, I think we are sunk."
Westport Harbour chief executive Trish Casey said Westport Harbour had been unable to find any way to mitigate the risks to the port company of under-wharf fishing.
"We know this issue is important to those who enjoy this practice, but the staff, directors and shareholders of Westport Harbour are exposed to unacceptable liability from the practice."