Of the six different species of juvenile native fish caught as whitebait, my favourite is kōaro. Not because I want to eat these little fish, but because they are such incredible climbers.
They can crawl up near-vertical rock waterfalls by using their fins like suction cups and swishing their tails to propel them against the rushing water. This amazing native species lives anywhere from the sea, up into the mountains. You could expect to see one in Lake Taupō or even high up on Mount Taranaki, living to the grand old age of 15 years.
Sadly, the kōaro are in big trouble. Like most native fish in New Zealand, their populations have declined to crisis point. The kōaro is as endangered as the North Island brown kiwi.
Yet we continue to allow whitebait to be harvested and sold in a largely unregulated fishery – there is no catch limit and no fishing licence required.
There's no one silver bullet for our freshwater woes, but demanding that we save our native fish from extinction would be a good start.
The vast majority of New Zealanders agree that something has to change. In a Department of Conservation survey of more than 2500 people, 90 per cent said they'd like to see the whitebait fishery managed more sustainably.
Forest & Bird has called for a halt to commercial whitebait fishing. That's not the only management option. Besides a license and a catch limit, we could look at temporarily closing rivers or catchments where fish populations are too low. There is also the possibility of a shorter season, or a halt on fishing during the spring tide (just after a new or full moon) when the biggest rushes of whitebait swim from sea to fresh water.
Putting rules around whitebait fishing is important, but fishing is not the only threat to native fish.
Soon, the Government will ask New Zealanders about a new national policy statement on
freshwater management. This is our chance to demand a better future.
We are mistreating our freshwater environment in Aotearoa. Dirty water, wetland destruction, and blocks to fish migration all play a part in whitebait decline.
Bridges, roads, dams and pumps can present an impossible obstacle for even the best climbers among our fish and eels. Concrete structures with large overhangs create dead ends, which restricts fish access to food, mates, and in some cases can cause their death.
A 2017 report revealed that Northland and Waikato have had large fish-kill incidents where eels migrating to the sea to breed were being chopped to pieces in pumps.
We also have toxic water. Water polluted with nitrates from fertilisers and cow urine means low oxygen and high stress for fish. This makes it hard to feed, breed and avoid predators. For many native fish, water quality is the difference between thriving and barely surviving. It's also what keeps us from being able to swim in our local streams and rivers.
And, unbelievably, we are continuing to destroy wetlands. Fish love wetlands but these important habitats are not properly protected on private land. Environment Southland revealed that 10 per cent of its wetlands were destroyed between 2007-2017, 40 per cent of which was to make way for dairy farming.
That is a big deal; Southland is the second largest region for remaining wetlands in New Zealand.
We need our new plan for fresh water to ensure the proper rules are put in place to restore our waterways and protect the places our native fish live. That means we need better controls on land use to reduce cow numbers and fertiliser use that pollutes our streams.
These regulations should also make sure habitat is accessible so fish can swim freely up and downstream to complete their life cycles. We need to protect habitat, and that means we need protection for every last remaining wetland in New Zealand.
Next year, when the Department of Conservation consults on how to manage the whitebait fishery, we need it to become sustainable.
There is a future where rivers are healthy, the amazing kōaro will return to abundance along with all our struggling native fish, we too can swim safely in our rivers, and a sustainable whitebait harvest will be possible.
There's no one silver bullet for our freshwater woes, but demanding that we save our native fish from extinction would be a good start. This month, when Environment Minister David Parker begins reforming freshwater policy through the national policy statement on Freshwater Management, tell him to put our native fish first.
• Annabeth Cohen is the fresh water advocate for Forest & Bird